Styrofoam Pollution and the Ocean

By Mary Luna, Coastal and Marine Scientist, Heal the Bay

During my student days I used to drive from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica for a relaxing run on the sand. I’ve always found the shoreline a peaceful place. But one morning, I looked down and realized that trash covered almost every foot of my run. It had just rained, and runoff from stormdrains had brought thousands of pieces of trash that now littered the beach and the ocean. Trash was everywhere, as far as the eye could see, ruining my peaceful place.

Shocked and saddened, I knew I had do something to fix the trash problem. So I started volunteering with Heal the Bay. At monthly beach cleanups, I spent a lot of time removing plastic straws and broken up Styrofoam pieces. I still remember chasing after all those bits on windy days.

Plastic straws are single-use items, meaning that we consumers use one straw one time, and then throw it away. The consumption rate in the U.S. is of about 1.6 straws used per person per day, which results in more than 500 million straws being thrown away daily. Trash in the ocean is a persistent and growing problem that is negatively affecting human and ecosystem health, and coastal beauty.

But single-use straws may be on their way out in California.

Thanks to Ian Calderon and Richard Hershel Bloom, the Democratic assemblymen who introduced AB 1884 last January. AB 1884 prohibits a food facility in California from providing a single-use plastic straw to a consumer, unless the consumer requests it; and it excludes takeout food. First and second violations would be subject to a warning, and subsequent ones to an infraction and a fine of $25 for each day the food facility is in violation, with a $300 limit per year.

The next big challenge is polystyrene.

Take-out food packaging like cups and to-go boxes are generally made from foam polystyrene, and utensils, lids and food packaging from solid polystyrene – which means that every time we use one of these items we are contributing to the trash problem.

Polystyrene use is a serious challenge, and it manifests itself as an eyesore in our beaches, in our inland communities and around the world. Not long ago I traveled to the town of Iquitos in the Amazon, and was dismayed to see that this area only accessible by plane and boat is also having serious issues with plastic pollution.

Iquitos, Amazon

Back in California, Caltrans reports that 15% of the total litter volume recovered from storm drains is polystyrene. The Ocean Protection Council estimates costs to clean up marine debris are close to $1 billion annually. The cleanup cost to taxpayers and local governments for collection and disposal of fast-food related waste ranges from $400 million to $600 million annually. And it is not very cost effective to recycle polystyrene products.

The good news is that jurisdictions in California are passing legislation to address the polystyrene problem. This past April, the City of Long Beach banned various items made from polystyrene plastic citywide. Other jurisdictions that have passed some type of polystyrene legislation include Imperial Beach, Pasadena, South Pasadena, Culver City, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Malibu and the City and County of Los Angeles.

The efforts of these jurisdictions to reduce polystyrene pollution are commendable, but there’s more work to do. Currently there is no legislation proposed to comprehensively address polystyrene use at the state level. In addition, some of the local efforts by counties or cities, while laudable, only ban polystyrene in government facilities; not in food service establishments.

We must of course recognize the concerns of business, particularly small vendors that worry about growing business costs resulting from the replacement of polystyrene products with more sustainable ones. One way to assess the potential impacts is to look at how many businesses file for hardship after the jurisdiction adopts a polystyrene ban. After the City of Santa Monica instituted a ban in 2007, no hardship clauses were filed.

And so you may wonder, how can I help? Below are some suggestions:

  • Join a beach cleanup. Experience firsthand chasing after broken-up Styrofoam pieces on a windy day; it will inspire you to do more.
  • Attend your local city council meeting, and during the public comment session, ask them to write an ordinance or to expand their current ordinance to regulate polystyrene use.
  • Support organizations like AltaSea and Heal the Bay that are working in your city to reduce polystyrene use.

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