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Marine Plastic Pollution Legal & Policy Solution Briefings for U.S. Senate Ocean Caucus

December 12 2013 | Legal, Rise Above Plastics,
by Angela Howe

This week, Surfrider Foundation, with the help of UCLA Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic, had the outstanding opportunity to present legal and policy solutions available for addressing marine plastic pollution at the federal level.  This presentation took place in our nation's capitol, Washington DC, with the help of the U.S. Senate Ocean Caucus.  The presentation was part of a larger workshop lead by NRDC and U.N. Environment Program to discuss solutions to marine plastic pollution, including Extended Producer Responsibility ("EPR") and life-cycle management of plastic products.  In addition to presenting on this topic to an audience of over 100 people, Surfrider Foundation and UCLA Enviornmental Law Clinic were also able to follow up with Senate office visits to discuss the details of proposed solutions to Rise Above Plastics with increased source reduction of heavily-littered items.

When communicating with offices like U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from Nevada, UCLA Environmental Law Clinic representatives, Jaimini Parekh, Thomas Oh and Clinic Professor Megan Herzog, were sure to include research information regarding the BILLIONS of dollars spent on marine litter clean up each year. They also cited NOAA's estimate that a drop in beach cleanliness can lead to a loss of up to 52% in tourism revenue.  The direct costs to coastal communities in California, Oregon and Washington are more than $512 million annually (or $13 per resident per year).

As another major benefit of this policy effort, Surfrider Foundation and the UCLA Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic published the 2013 Briefing  Book on Federal Law and Policy Solutions to Address Marine Plastic Pollution.  In addition to detailing the harms of plastic pollution to wildlife, economy, and resources, the booklet also offers three sound policy solutions that have been tested at the local and state levels.  These solutions on source reduction include:

1) Bans and Fees on Single-Use Bags.  This is a policy solution that has seen great success on the local level domestically.  In Washington, DC, a mere 5-cent fee on single-use takeout bags resulted in a drop in single-use bag consumption from 22.5 million bags per month to 3 million bags per month.  The fee has also generated more than $6 million for the Anacostia River Fund to date.  Meanwhile state plastic bag recycling programs have failed in their efforts to increase recycling.  The United States recycles less than 5% of the 102 billion plastic bags it consumes each year.  The costs of recycling also doesn't add up.  Each 1-cent plastic bag used at a retail establishment in Rhode Island costs over 10 cents to society after factoring in the costs of production (e.g. carbon dioxide emissions), litter disposal, landfill disposal and improper recycling.

2) State Deposit-Refund Systems.  These systems, like state bottle bills, create market incentives for proper disposal of potentially polluting products by combining a product charge (or deposit) and a subsidy for recycling or proper disposal of the product (or refund).  Revenue from unredeemed containers can reach in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  In 2011, California generated more than $200 million in unclaimed deposit revenue.  Deposit-refund systems create 11 to 38 times more jobs than curbside recycling systems for beverage containers.  Ton for ton, a deposit-refund system creates at least 5 times more jobs in container collection, sorting, and transport than garbage collecting, hauling, and landfilling.

3) Extended Producer Reponsibility Programs.  EPR has seen success in other countries as a producer-end mechanism to decrease waste by increasing recycling and decreasing dependency on raw materials.  EPR shifts the cost of managing post-use products partially or fully from local governments to the producting industry, based on the "polluter pays" principle.  EPR laws for packaging serve as a means to divert waste from entering landfills and to increase recycling of reusable materials.  For instance, Germany's Packaging Ordinance dramatically increased recycling and reduced plastics packaging from 40 percent by volume to 27 percent (of course, this type of system may succumb to mere "light-weighting" of packaging, which may not reduce the number of marine debris items).  A successful federal policy could mimic the Canadian approach by imposing a fee on industry to cover the cost of recycling programs.

More information on these proposed solutions can be found in the Briefing Booklet.  Surfrider Foundation sincerely thanks the UCLA Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic for their valuable time and commitment to this issue.  We are also looking forward to advocating for implementation of these bold policy solutions and other necessary actions to curb the tide of plasic pollution on our beautiful beaches.

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