Plastic pollution is a persistent and growing problem worldwide that significantly impacts the health of our oceans and beaches. Roughly 11 million metric tons of plastics are estimated to enter the global ocean each year, and the United States is one of the top contributors to plastic pollution. Plastic has been found in a wide range of marine environments including the seafloor, surface water, the water column, and on beaches and shorelines. As of 2015, California communities are estimated to spend more than $428 million annually to clean up and control plastic pollution. Plastic never truly degrades into its chemical components; instead, it physically breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastics under 5 millimeters in size are called microplastics and are found worldwide, even in places considered pristine. Plastics have been found in the digestive tracts of marine organisms ranging from zooplankton to whales, and microplastics have been found in drinking water and food, including shellfish, salt, beer, and honey.
The State of California has become a leader in preventing ocean litter by passing a ban on single-use plastic bags; banning microplastics in wash-off products, like face scrubs and toothpaste; and enacting among the most comprehensive plastic extended producer responsibility requirements in the nation. OPC’s marine pollution program works to address ocean litter by coordinating among the wide range of state agencies and nongovermental organizations that work on plastic pollution, and by supporting needed research to help the state better respond to microplastic pollution.
How do we work on Plastic Pollution?
Sound Policy Guidance
OPC is developing guidance and strategies to inform policy responses to plastic pollution. OPC is also adopting resolutions on timely plastic pollution policy options.
California Ocean Litter Prevention Strategy
OPC partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop and implement the California Ocean Litter Prevention Strategy (Strategy), which describes actions that OPC and California stakeholders will pursue to address plastic pollution through 2024. The Strategy is an update and expansion of an earlier document that laid out actions that state agencies could take to address ocean litter.
To receive emails about the implementation process and upcoming webinars or events, please subscribe to OPC’s general email announcements and California Ocean Litter Strategy project email announcements (select: “Ask to join group”).
Statewide Microplastics Strategy
In February 2022, OPC adopted a first-of-its-kind Statewide Microplastics Strategy pursuant to Senate Bill 1263 (Portantino, 2018) that recommends early actions and research priorities to reduce microplastic pollution in California’s marine environment. The Statewide Microplastics Strategy sets a multi-year roadmap for California to take a national and global leadership role in managing microplastics pollution, following a simultaneous two-track approach:
Track 1: Solutions
- Pollution Prevention: Eliminate plastic waste at the source (products or materials from
which microplastics originate).
- Pathway Interventions: Intervene within specific pathways (ex: stormwater runoff,
wastewater, aerial deposition) that mobilize microplastics into California waters.
- Outreach & Education: Engage and inform the public and industries of microplastic
sources, impacts, and solutions.
Track 2: Science to Inform Future Action
- Monitoring: Understand and identify trends of microplastic pollution statewide.
- Risk Thresholds & Assessment: Improve understanding of impacts to aquatic life and human health based on local data.
- Evaluating New Solutions: Develop and implement future solutions.
OPC adopts resolutions on relevant and timely policy options to prevent plastic pollution. OPC’s work on plastic pollution began with the Council’s adoption of a resolution to reduce and prevent marine debris in 2007, and additional resolutions on policy options to address plastic pollution have been passed since then.
- Resolution of the California Ocean Protection Council Regarding Plastic Bags, adopted in 2016
- Resolution of the Ocean Protection Council on Support for Extended Producer Responsibility Programs, adopted in 2009
- Resolution of the California Ocean Protection Council on Reducing and Preventing Marine Debris, adopted in 2007
OPC works to secure and leverage funding for scientific research to better understand plastic pollution, its impacts, and inform which policies will effectively prevent plastic pollution.
Scientific Trash & Plastics Monitoring
Plastic pollution data has been collected through beach cleanups since the late 1980s, but scientific assessments of plastic pollution sources, pathways, and endpoints in the environment is an emerging field. OPC funded a series of projects to support the standardization and validation of trash monitoring methods in California. These methods will assist in determining the effectiveness of policy, particularly the Trash Amendments.
OPC is working to develop and advance innovative strategies to reduce and prevent plastic pollution including pilot projects and policy effectiveness research. See the featured initiatives and projects section below for details.
Current Funding Opportunities
OPC and California Sea Grant Microplastic Research Program Request for Proposals
The California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) and California Sea Grant are seeking applications for two separate research calls to advance microplastics understanding and management in California, consistent with the priorities outlined in the California Ocean Litter Strategy and Statewide Microplastics Strategy.
- Informational Webinar: March 7, 2023, 3:30 – 4:30 PM PT
- Letter of Intent (LOI) due: March 24, 2023, 5:00 PM PT
- Full Proposal due: May 15, 2023, 5:00 PM PT
See the Request for Proposals for detailed research priorities of this funding opportunity.
Featured Initiatives and Projects
In 2022, UPSTREAM launched an OPC-sponsored Reusables Toolkit: Roadmap to Reuse to serve as a resource hub for local governments and businesses reduce single-use plastics and advance the use of reusables in food service operations.
Understanding the Flow of Microplastics to the Ocean
In 2022, the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) completed an OPC-funded study illustrating how a variety of plastic products break down into microplastic particles as they move from our cities into streams, rivers, and the ocean.
Microplastic Risk Assessment Framework and Scientific Guidance
In 2021, OPC, the California Ocean Science Trust (OST), and group of leading scientists released guidance for addressing microplastic pollution in California’s marine environments, working proactively to manage microplastic waste, and assessing the risk these tiny plastics pose to marine ecosystems, marine animals and humans.
Developing Scientific Trash Monitoring
Starting in 2017, OPC developed a series of projects with the State Water Resources Control Board to develop, validate, and standardize trash monitoring methodologies. These projects also worked to educate interested organizations about scientific trash monitoring methodologies.
In 2016, OPC funded a pilot project to “unpackage” Alameda. Through this project, Clean Water Fund worked with 80 to 100 businesses in Alameda to reduce their reliance on single-use disposable food packaging. This project piloted changes in institutional purchasing to reduce the prevalence of single-use foodware that typically becomes plastic pollution. Overall the 80 businesses that participated are estimated to eliminate over 6 million pieces of single-use foodware annually, preventing over 64 thousand pounds of waste each year. Collectively these businesses are estimated to save over $139,000 annually.
Newport Bay Water Wheel
In 2018, OPC approved a $1.68 million Proposition 1 grant to the City of Newport Beach for planning and construction of the Newport Bay Water Wheel Project. This project is modeled closely on the design of the successful Baltimore Trash Wheel project. The Newport Bay Water Wheel could immediately reduce trash load reductions of 50%-80% once installed.
Interactions between microplastics and pathogen pollutants
In 2018, OPC approved a grant to UC Davis for research to investigate microplastics as a potential vector for terrestrial pathogens in the marine environment. This project will investigate the interaction between microplastics and land-based protozoan parasites such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and Toxoplasma, and whether these parasites can ‘hitchike’ on microplastics to infect commercial shellfish species.