California’s Microplastic Initiative to Turn the Tides of Plastic Pollution

They are present on every body of water on Earth – from remote oceans currents to
pristine mountain lakes – and they have even been identified in human placenta and lung
tissues. Despite progress towards a cleaner, greener future, we have been unable to
outrun the impending doom of microplastics. It is no secret that anthropocentric activities have introduced a host of plastics into the planet’s oceans, fundamentally restricting the habitats of marine ecosystems and threatening the survival of ocean life. There are currently an estimated 50-75 trillion pieces of microplastics (defined as plastic debris measuring less than 5 millimeters) in the world’s oceans, amassing an equivalent to 30 billion plastic water bottles. For this trend in contamination to continue would mean inevitable loss of marine species, not to mention the subsequent decrease in oxygen levels that our oceans provide for life on land. California is one state that is taking action to prevent that result. As of February, 2022, California became the first state to implement a strategy to remediate this pressing issue. The end goal of this endeavor: to reduce the state’s addiction to single-use plastics and initiate a global precedent of plastic consciousness

Microplastics are defined as particulates less than 5 millimeters that derive from the
materials that humans interact with on a daily basis. While plastic water bottles caps and
trash wrappers might be the immediate items that the term ‘microplastic’ elicits, a study
by German chemical company, Henkel, claims that the three largest contributors to our
oceans’ microplastics are synthetic textiles, car tires, and city dust, respectively. These plastics can enter the water as industrial microbeads, or as larger plastic litter that degrades into small pellets. In addition to the obvious plastic litter, microbeads are in exfoliating agents, cosmetic washes, industrial cleaning processes, pharmaceuticals, and glitter. These fractals of sinister, plastic malice pose a threat to not only the 114 marine species that have been observed to possess microplastics, but the millions of humans that eat contaminated fish and crustaceans Microplastics are highly mobile and distribute easily in water and sediments. When exposed to UV light, they are also capable of breaking into smaller sizes which can complicate the natural filtration processes that dictate the water cycle. In addition, microplastics have a tendency to absorb surrounding chemicals, which when later transmitted through the food chain by ingestion, can release such toxins into its host. Microplastics have the potential to stunt growth and cause reproductive issues in the organisms that consume them; scientists are studying the extent of human health impacts.

The implications of harmful microplastics are not reserved to the living organisms that
consume them, however. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) is studying
the threat of plastics on coral reefs at EPA’s Coral Research Facility, an indoor wet lab in Gulf Breeze, Florida. The facility has studied two different species of coral and found
that long-term exposure to microplastics impaired the corals’ growth. Firstly, this research has found that microplastics block the corals’ digestive tract, thus leaving these invertebrates feeling full and unable to consume a natural diet. Furthermore, the EPA alleges that the presence of microplastics can act as a shield that impedes coral from
capturing prey; another theory asserts that the energy required by the coral to remove
microplastics from its surface prevents the coral from possessing enough ‘fuel’ to hunt for food. Continued research of the relationship between coral and microplastics seeks to
determine whether rising temperatures paired with increases in microplastics have
cumulative impacts on our coral reefs. With these reefs covering a mere 1% of Earth’s
surface, yet containing a quarter of planetary biodiversity, it goes without saying that consideration of our coral reefs is of utmost importance.

California intends its new proposal to alter the tides of this concern and usher health and well-being back into coastal habitats. The new initiative, spearheaded by the California Ocean Protective Council has established a $3 million spending budget on the reduction strategy in the hope to attain California’s reduction goals by 2030. California’s microplastic reduction strategy is two-fold, and involves blocking microplastics from entering the environment, as well as monitoring those that are already in the oceans. The first step in the strategy, as stated by Ocean Protective Council executive director, Mark Gold, is to establish an effective blockade through redesigning storm water systems that will catch the plastics before they reach the ocean. The strategy also includes funding to research the ways in which microplastics affect human health; what is currently known about microplastics’ harm to health relates specifically to marine life rather than humans. The Ocean Protective Council believes that investigating the harm
to human health will generate interest and support for the Council’s overall strategy.

Aside from these overarching objectives, the Council’s strategy lays out a set of 22
additional actions to address microplastics. These steps include setting financial
barriers related to the sale and distribution of cigarette filters and polystyrene food
packaging. Environmental experts have found these to be two of the most commonly
found pollutants on beach shores, and they are additionally relatively reasonable
products to tax. Additionally, the Ocean Protective Council asserts that they plan to
increase trash cans in the beach hotspots where pollutants might be able to find their
way into the ocean. Perhaps the most revolutionary advancement in the California
microplastic strategy, however, is the development of what the Ocean Protective Council hopes to be the first microplastic monitoring system. Similar to current technology that
reports on the level of harmful particulates in the air during wildfires, the Council hopes to inaugurate a way to measure the presence of microplastics in California’s oceans, as well as waters of the planet as a whole. The Ocean Protective Council’s strategies
incorporate substantive and relevant, yet measurable, goals that can be achieved
through communities’ consolidated efforts.

While this initiative serves as the most extensive and influential microplastic strategy to date, previous policy adjustments have been implemented to address the harmful and
avoidable inclusion of microbeads in cosmetic products. In fact, California has the
strictest microbead limitation, prohibiting the sale of products with biodegradable
microbeads. In 2018, the California legislature passed a package of bills to help
increase the knowledge of the risks of microplastics and microfibers on the marine
environment, including the requirement for the State Water Resources Control Board to
adopt an official definition of microplastics in drinking water. The State Board adopted
that definition in June 2020. Following that rulemaking, California initiated plans for a microplastics strategy requiring state agencies to investigate and submit a strategy to
the state Legislature by the end of 2021 and progress report along with
recommendations for policy changes or additional research by the end of 2025.

California will be granting state residents the opportunity to take part in the fight against plastic pollution in a newly initiated November ballot measure: the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act. This resolution would require all single-use plastic packaging and food ware to be recyclable, refillable, or compostable by the year 2030, on top of an overall reduction in single-use plastics by 25% by the year 2030. With a recent poll by Ipsos indicating that 86% of Californians support government policies to limit single-use plastics, and 91% demonstrating concern for plastic pollution, this bill will serve as an opportunity to evoke necessary change from the ground up. If passed, the measure will oversee not only a shift in plastic production methods for producers but will facilitate the eventual phasing-out of single-use plastics throughout the state, as well as the related harmful pollution. Each of these previous actions have culminated into a consolidated knowledge of how microplastics affect our homes and our health, as well as provided awareness for how to recompense a neglect of our oceans.

Many argue that it is the United States burden to address this microplastics issue, as it
is responsible for contributing more plastic pollution into the ocean than any other
country and has introduced more microplastics than all the European Union nations
combined in the last year. Yet, this effort to free our oceans from plastics is not
confined to California alone, the United Nations and European Union are working to
draft their own proposals for microplastic remediation, and will certainly look towards
California’s strategy and observable successes in doing so. The concern for
microplastics does not appear to hold the same weight for many UN members as other
green initiatives, particularly those involving renewable energies. The UN has been
developing a drawn-out timeline for implementing microplastics legislation, which has
allocated a five-year feedback period beginning in 2018. Nevertheless, both the
European Union and United Nations intend to adopt standards that will address microplastics in 2022, thus presenting even greater requirement for California’s plan to
succeed. However, with compelling implementation and community endorsement, there
is no doubt that California’s microplastic strategy will affect the necessary change to
reinstate the health of our Oceans.

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