Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem

plastic report coverThe California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) has prioritized the issue of marine debris. A significant percentage of marine debris, up to 80% in some places, is plastic, and scientific estimates for the degradation time of plastics in the ocean are on the order of hundreds to thousands of years. Thus the OPC commissioned an independent synthesis of scientific information to serve as a place-marker for the current state of research on plastic debris in California's marine environment. The resulting report was commissioned by the California Ocean Protection Council, managed by California Ocean Science Trust, and produced by a known leader in the topic of water quality, USC Sea Grant.

Download Full Report: "Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem: A Summary of Current Research, Solution Efforts and Data Gaps."

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California Ocean Science Trust

Executive Summary of Report

As the state with the largest population in the U.S. and 75% of that population living along its 1,100-mile coastline, it is no wonder that California has long been at the center of the discussion about the sources of, the impacts from, and the solutions to marine debris. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program defines marine debris as "any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes." Because of its extreme persistence and ubiquity, plastic marine debris has become the focus of most of the current scientific research and cleanup efforts. Studies now indicate that 60-80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources, and up to 80% of this debris is plastic.

Much of this plastic marine debris is in the form of micro-plastics created from the environmental breakdown of larger pieces of plastic or originally created as precursor resin pellets for the industrial production of plastic products. Scientific estimates for the degradation of plastics in the ocean are on the order of hundreds to thousands of years. In fact, aside from plastic which has been incinerated, some scientists believe it is plausible that all the plastic ever created since its invention in the late 1940s still exists on the planet, either buried in landfills, buried on shorelines, floating in the ocean, or on the seafloor.

Since its invention over 50 years ago, plastic—being durable, lightweight and cheap—has undeniably transformed numerous industries as well as the daily life of individuals. However, these very same characteristics of plastic have also made it quite a problem once it is lost into the environment. Especially in coastal states like California with a multibillion-tourism industry oriented around its world-renown beaches, the negative side of plastic becomes apparent as it accumulates on shorelines, in coastal waters, and on the seafloor. Plastic marine debris causes substantial economic impacts to coastal communities, documented in the millions of dollars spent in the form of cleanups or lost in decreases in tourism, as well as losses to commercial fisheries due to derelict fishing gear. Additionally, more than 260 species including turtles, fish, seabirds, mammals, and invertebrates have been reported to ingest or become entangled in plastic marine debris, often resulting in death.

Besides these obvious impacts of plastic marine debris, concern is also growing over the ability of these ubiquitous, durable plastic particles floating in the ocean to serve as concentrating and transport devices for environmental pollutants. The United Nations Environment Program has declared plastic marine debris and its ability to transport toxic substances one of the main emerging issues in our global environment.

Plastics can contain by weight up to 50% fillers, reinforcements, and additives. Public and media attention have focused on additives like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates among others, which can leach out of plastics at different rates depending on environmental conditions and have been shown to have a variety of health effects on marine organisms in the laboratory setting. Research now focuses on long-term effects of exposure to these pollutants, the synergistic effects of exposures to multiple kinds of common pollutants, the issue of whether these pollutants can be transferred up the food chain and, finally, the question of whether there are detectable population-level effects in marine communities.

Finding solutions to the issues of marine debris in a state as large as California will likely involve a multi-faceted approach. In terms of the size of the plastics industry, shipments, and jobs, California is one the leading states in the country. Moreover, southern California has the largest concentration of plastic processors in the western U.S. Clearly, successful solutions will need careful coordination of information from industry, policy-makers, government agencies, scientists, and the public. California is viewed as a leader, particularly on environmental issues, by other states and even other countries. Research on plastic marine debris stands to provide another opportunity by which California can exercise leadership and establish an example worldwide.

The work has already begun. In 2005, the California Coastal Commission and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation co-sponsored the first international conference on plastic debris, called "Plastic Debris, Rivers to Sea," which focused on prescribing a total of 63 recommendations for action for California. The California Ocean Protection Council's 2007 resolution on marine debris came about in part due to these recommendations. A series of legislative bills were also proposed within the last few years, several of which have since been signed into law. Now with the sober reality of a limited budget and resources, it will be more important than ever for California to effectively reevaluate the current state of knowledge on plastic marine debris and find solutions which encourage partnerships and coordination across the state, contain the most economic incentives, and, most importantly, protect and restore one of California most valuable assets: its coastal marine ecosystem.


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National Focus Area
Healthy Coastal Ecosystems