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Plastic food wrappers now No. 1 trash at global beach cleanups

A massive amount of plastic packaging continues to flow into the ocean, along roadways and into landfills, with little end in sight, according to the latest International Coastal Cleanup report from the Ocean Conservancy.

While steps have been taken to reduce other types of waste commonly gathered during cleanups, food wrappers for the first time were the most collected trash worldwide — surpassing the perennial leader, cigarette butts — according to the conservancy’s report on 2019 cleanups, released Tuesday, Sept. 8. The group has been compiling the annual reports since 1986.

Cigarette butts continued to top the list in California cleanups with food wrappers placing second. But other types of plastic — including bottle caps, beverage bottles, straws and grocery bags — were also near the top of most-collected lists in both California and worldwide.

“In the early days … volunteers were finding glass bottles, metal cans, paper bags, and other items that have increasingly been replaced by plastic alternatives,” said Allison Schutes, the conservancy’s director of International Coastal Cleanup. “As a result, more and more food-related plastics are ending up in our environment, where they persist and threaten wildlife indefinitely.”

Worldwide in 2019, 943,000 people gathered 32 million pieces of trash — 15% of which were food wrappers for chips, candy and the like. In the state, 71,000 people gathered 862,000 pieces of trash in cleanups organized by the Surfrider Foundation, Orange County Coastkeeper, Heal the Bay and others. Food wrappers accounted for 10%.

Failed reduction efforts

California and coastal cities have been chipping away at some sources of plastic waste, including voters’ 2016 ratification of a ban on single-use grocery bags and a handful of local bans on plastic straws, utensils and foam food containers.

But food wrappers pose a particular challenge, according to Nick Mallos, senior director of the conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program.

“We can recycle plastic bottles, we can bring our own bags to the supermarket, and many of us can even skip the plastic straw altogether,” Mallos said. “But when it comes to keeping food fresh, safe, and accessible, manufacturers have put most of their research and development energy into disposable plastics.

“We need food science and packaging experts to accelerate research and development of packaging that isn’t destined for landfills, and that keeps both people and our ocean safe and healthy,” Mallos added.

For the past two years, the California Legislature considered bills that would have reduced the state’s plastic waste by 75% over the next decade or so. Both times, a version of the bill was passed by each chamber but failed to come up for a final vote. The measures would have required waste from plastic packaging and single-use products, including foodware, to be reduced through a combination of recycling, replacing plastics with compostable materials, and eliminating unnecessary packaging.

Less than 15% of the state’s plastics are recycled, according to the bills. Annual global production of plastic is 335 million tons and growing, while “by 2050 the mass of plastic pollution in the ocean will exceed the mass of fish,” the bills said.

Among opponents of the legislation was the California Chamber of Commerce, which cited costs to wholesalers, retailers and customers. Proponents countered that those costs would be offset by savings to cities and counties as a result of shrinking the waste stream.

Cleanups not enough

The coronavirus pandemic has chipped into the organized cleanups tallied by the conservancy. The annual international coastal cleanup day, usually the third Saturday of September, has been transformed in California this year to a self-guided coastal cleanup month.

But the conservancy’s Mallos said addressing the problem needs to move beyond cleanups.

“As incredible and passionate as they are, volunteers alone cannot bear the burden of cleaning up the mess,” he said. “An endless stream of peer-reviewed science papers are showing how plastics have reached every corner of this planet, and that the problem is only going to get worse if we don’t fundamentally change how we produce, consume, and deal with plastics.

“We can’t keep kicking the can – or the bag, or the bottle, for that matter – down the road.”

Source: Orange County Register

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