Environmental Law

Envt'l Law News Spring 2014, Vol. 23, No. 1


by Angela T. Howe, Surfrider Foundation, San Clemente*

Plastic pollution of beaches, waterways and oceans is a grave problem for the health and sustainability of the marine environment. When plastic pollution enters the environment, and especially the hydrosphere, it does not biodegrade, but rather photodegrades into smaller and smaller pieces with exposure to the sun’s UV light.1 The harms of plastic pollution expand beyond detriment to the marine ecosystem, though, and include damage to coastal tourism, economic strain on local and state governments, impairment of aesthetics, misuse of natural resources, and impacts to the food chain.

While marine debris has significant impacts on biodiversity (to the tune of affecting a reported 663 species),2 the problem may grab the attention of decision-makers due to the high economic costs associated with marine plastic pollution. The direct costs of cleaning up marine litter for west coast communities are more than $520 million, according to a 2012 EPA Region IX report, which also found that small and medium-sized communities spend $14 per year, per resident.3 Further research suggests that a drop in beach cleanliness standards could result in the loss of up to 52% in tourism revenue.4 In California, plastic pollution threatens a major sector of the state’s economic portfolio: the multibillion-dollar, ocean-based economy.

Municipal governments serve as the incubators of sound legal and policy reform. One primary example is San Francisco’s single-use, carry out bag prohibition that took effect in 2007, which has since spurred a massive trend of local bag ban ordinances. To date, 87 municipalities in the state of California have plastic bag ban ordinances. Many of these were recently passed in the wake of failure of statewide legislation to regulate the issue. There are also 75 expanded polystyrene foam bans on takeout food ware in municipalities that have opted to regulate this commonly found form of marine litter. Furthermore, beach smoking prohibitions have been an overwhelmingly popular method to prevent cigarette butt litter at treasured local beaches.

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