Preventing Ocean Litter

Ocean litter – also commonly referred to as “marine debris” – is a persistent and growing problem worldwide that significantly impacts the health and beauty of our oceans and beaches. It poses serious threats to marine wildlife, including sea birds, turtles and mammals such as dolphins and whales, as well as human health and welfare. Scientific research demonstrates that debris in the oceans is increasing at an alarming rate: plastic debris in an area north of Hawaii known as the Northwest Pacific Gyre has increased 5-fold in the last 10 years. In the Southern Ocean, the amount of plastic debris increased 100 times during the early 1990s. These are just a few examples of the recent marked increase in marine debris. Researchers estimate that 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources, particularly trash and plastic litter in urban runoff, and the generation of trash and waste is increasing.On November 20, 2008, the Ocean Protection Council (OPC) adopted the final “Implementation Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Ocean Litter”. The document was created in response to the OPC’s February 2007 resolution that called for a plan of action to reduce and prevent marine debris. The report aims to prompt a change in how California generates, handles and disposes items that frequently land in our ocean. The implementation strategy offers sixteen recommendations, ranging from banning smoking on state beaches to anti-litter education and clean-up initiatives, with three priority actions that focus on reducing litter through direct economic actions. At the core is the goal of reducing the amount of litter that accumulates in the ocean, particularly the 60-80% that is lightweight and buoyant plastic material. This litter kills marine life, including endangered species, transports invasive species and toxic pollutants, and damages the aesthetics of our beaches and the sea.

Photo credit: Ocean Conservancy

Photo credit: Ocean Conservancy

The top three priority actions of the implementation strategy would remake California’s relationship with frequently used plastics and commonly littered items. The first priority action is to create a producer take-back program, or Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), for convenience food packaging. Successful EPR programs reduce waste by motivating manufacturers and distributors to use less packaging and more recyclable types of materials. The second priority action is a ban on polystyrene take-out food containers and a fee on single-use plastic and paper grocery bags. The goal behind this proposed fee and ban is to encourage a shift toward reusable bags and containers that are safer and less damaging to the marine environment. The third priority action recommends a fee be placed on commonly littered products that are not suitable for a take-back program or ban. The goal is to provide an incentive to consumers to buy less environmentally damaging products and to create a source of funds that can be used for new and improved litter-related programs, such as stricter enforcement of litter laws, increased clean up efforts, or alternative product development.

The OPC adopted the implementation strategy to encourage manufacturers, distributors, environmental groups, regulatory agencies and the public to reassess how our actions contribute to the growing problem of marine debris. Written with the guidance of the Marine Debris Steering Committee, the report is the first comprehensive plan that involves all Californians in a broad effort to curb ocean litter.


Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem: A Summary of Current Research, Solution Efforts and Data Gaps (September 2011)

Implementation Strategy

Marine Debris Resolution

Extended Producer Responsibility Resolution

Related Projects

Photo credit: Ocean Conservancy

Photo credit: Ocean Conservancy

Plastics Substance Flow Accounts

The OPC Marine Debris Resolution item #3 encourages new innovations to reduce plastic waste in the marine environment. One innovation is to identify alternatives that would biodegrade in the ocean and do not contain toxic materials. However, the effects and life-cycle of our current set of plastics need to be understood so alternatives can be developed.

Researchers at Chico State University calculated preliminary substance flow accounts for waste related to plastic packaging and products that may contribute to marine debris.  The work was coordinated in consultation with a project officer from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). The overall goal of the project was to understand the potential toxic hazards posed by plastic packaging waste in California’s aquatic environments through the creation of state-level substance flow accounts for plastic products of key concern.

The research aims were:

  1. identify and track the flows of the main thermoplastic resins (PET, PE, PVC, PP, PS) and all relevant additives through all relevant sectors
  2. identify emerging “safer substitutes”
  3. evaluate the methods and recommend next steps

Related Projects

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