California cracking down on plastic litter

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The plastic bags, polystyrene cups and soft drink bottles blowing across the landscape of California are starting to attract serious attention from the state's governments.

Faced with a potential cost of billions of dollars to meet a federal court order to clean up Los Angeles-area waterways, and a rising concern about the impact of packaging litter on oceans and marine life, the state is taking aim at plastics.

Malibu recently passed a ban on PS food-service items, and San Francisco has been debating taxing plastic bags. Los Angeles city officials have convened task forces to reduce litter from plastic bags and PS packaging.

And a government-sponsored conference on plastic debris and the oceans earlier this month in Redondo Beach drew more than 200 environmentalists, scientists, industry managers and government officials, including leaders of several California agencies charged with monitoring the state's environment.

Organizers were using the conference to discuss potential solutions with industry representatives and others.

``It's a big problem that will require action on all fronts,'' said Miriam Gordon, project manager for the California Coastal Commission and an organizer of the Plastic Debris, Rivers to Sea Conference. ``It is endemic to consumer societies around the world.''

Industry officials, too, said they recognize there are problems with plastic litter, as the use of plastic has grown twentyfold in the past 50 years, and several industry groups touted voluntary steps they're taking to reduce packaging waste in the state.

Even while promoting voluntary efforts, some, like Pete Grande, president of Command Packaging in Vernon, Calif., questioned whether there's enough data available to make good decisions.

For example, he said, it's not clear how record rainfalls this year in Southern California might be skewing data on the amount of trash showing up in waterways.

Judging by the conference, California officials want a stronger role in controlling plastic waste, although several said they don't want to do economic harm to an industry that employs 140,000 in the state.

They said plastic is a major contributor to very real, and very costly, problems California cities have in maintaining water quality. Complying with a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit will require Los Angeles to spend between $2 billion and $8 billion to clean up litter, when voters have approved spending only $500 million, said Dan Hackney, environmental policy analyst for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Ocean advocates and scientists also told the conference that plastic debris kills 100,000 marine animals a year, from ingestion or strangulation, and is affecting ecosystems because parts of the Pacific Ocean have six times as much plastic as plankton, by weight.

N. David Nahai, a board member for the Water Quality Control Board for the Los Angeles region, predicts greater government regulation. He said some companies are stepping forward with proposals, but noted, ``I don't think it can be said industrywide we are seeing that yet.''

While he said he is not a detractor of plastic - he compared it with the automobile in its far-reaching impact on society - he said plastics do have harmful effects on the environment that need to be addressed. Industry needs to make its products more recyclable and biodegradable, and needs to do more to see that its products don't get into the rivers and, ultimately, the ocean, Nahai added.

Gerald Secundy, a member of the California State Water Resources Control Board, said his agency is looking at using storm-water permits to limit plastic debris and may regulate the disposal of plastic pellets.

He told the conference about buying an electronics device in the Netherlands a few years ago and finding that the manufacturer had set up a program for users to ship back the PS foam packaging.

``We as a society still have a very long way to go with our reuse of materials,'' Secundy said.

Some industry officials at the conference said they are concerned that the group is targeting plastics, when the problem should be seen as people's behavior and enforcing litter laws already on the books.

``The solution is to enforce the laws - you need to keep the stuff from being disposed of improperly,'' said Pete Dinger, technology director at the American Plastics Council in Arlington, Va. ``Plastics are not the only things getting into the environment.''

Conference organizers, however, said plastics make up 90 percent of marine debris, and 80 percent of that debris comes from land.

On APC's other point, the need for stronger enforcement, there is wide agreement.

The Earth Resources Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., which is running a Campaign Against the Plastic Plague that targets single-use disposable products, said better enforcement is important, as is consumer education - but it also calls for more action from industry.

Stephanie Barger, the group's executive director, said industry needs to take more responsibility by creating closed-loop recycling systems for its packaging.

``The plastic industry isn't going to like this, but we don't need all this packaging,'' she said.