Fighting for a Plastic-Free Ocean

By Pete Stauffer

Plastic pollution is suffocating the ocean and the animals that call it home. Researchers estimate there are now more than 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean and the number grows every day. This pollution is ravaging our marine ecosystems, entangling and choking wildlife such as seabirds, dolphins, fish and turtles. Plastic never biodegrades, it only spreads and it's now polluting every part of the ocean—from beaches, reefs and deep ocean trenches to the frigid waters of the Arctic.

Solving a problem of this magnitude will be neither easy nor simple. A variety of approaches are needed to address the threat, including public education, product innovation and industry leadership. While recycling is important, less than 10 percent of plastic consumed since 1950 has actually been recycled. As recycling delays the final disposal of the material, it is ultimately useful for reducing the amount of new plastic that is produced. The solution to the plastics crisis depends on tackling the problem at the source: We must stop consuming plastics at current rates.

The grassroots movement to stop plastic pollution is working to advance laws and policies to discourage consumption. Hundreds of U.S. cities have already taken action to curb the use of commonly littered items such as plastic checkout bags, polystyrene foam containers, plastic bottles and straws. Taking the form of either bans or fees, such policies are shifting consumer habits to keep these damaging products out of landfills, watersheds and the ocean.

Over the past decade, the number of groups working to stop plastic pollution has grown by leaps and bounds. Last year, the movement reached an important milestone with the formation of #Breakfreefromplastics, an international group of hundreds of organizations, including the Surfrider Foundation, working to stop plastic pollution for good.

"Our chapters organize hundreds of beach cleanups every year, so they see the scale of the problem first hand," said Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen. "We know cleaning beaches isn't a long-term solution so it motivates our coastal defenders to advocate for practical source reduction solutions."

In the U.S., much of the advocacy to address plastic pollution has focused on grocery checkout bags—those ubiquitous items often seen clogging storm drains or hanging from tree branches. It is estimated that Americans go through about 100 billion plastic bags a year or 360 bags for every man, woman and child in the country. Curbing the consumption of single-use plastic bags is a first step to shift consumer habits towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Even among plastic products, they are uniquely damaging. They disperse easily, choke streams and rivers, entangle wildlife, clog recycling equipment and cost significant amounts of money to clean up.

Fueled by grassroots advocacy and growing public awareness, more than 200 municipalities in the U.S. have now passed bans or fees on single-use plastic bags. These laws keep billions of plastic bags out of circulation annually and represent an important step in a broader paradigm shift towards reusables.

Unfortunately, the plastics industry is fighting back as communities increasingly reject harmful plastic products. After the nation's first statewide plastic bag ban in California was signed into law in 2014, an industry-fueled effort to overturn it led to a referendum for voters, who voted to uphold the statewide bag ban. Meanwhile, the bag policy in New York City was recently overturned by the New York State Legislature, part of a disturbing national trend of states preempting local government efforts to address plastic pollution. Industry groups spend millions to defeat anti-bag laws through lobbying legislators, filing lawsuits and hiring additional firms. Their efforts are gaining traction as more than ten states, including Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin have now passed "preemption policies" to prohibit local governments from passing ordinances to address plastic bags.

This is an alarming development, given the growing crisis of plastic pollution in the ocean. Strong leadership from local, state and federal governments is critical for the U.S. to make real progress on the issue. That's why public education and citizen advocacy is needed more than ever. Ask your legislators to take action on the issue of plastic pollution and oppose laws that prevent local municipalities from passing local laws to improve their communities. Get involved through your local Surfrider chapter and stay connected to the plastic-free movement through @Surfrider and #BreakFreeFromPlastics. The future of the ocean may depend on it.

Pete Stauffer is environmental director for the Surfrider Foundation and manages the organization's campaigns and programs to address the protection of our ocean, waves and beaches. Based in San Clemente, California, Pete supports Surfrider chapters and staff across the U.S. to advance local, state and national priorities.

Show Comments ()

Trump Administration Offers 77 Million Acres in Gulf of Mexico to Oil Industry

The Trump administration is holding the biggest offshore oil and gas lease auction in U.S. history Wednesday, offering all 77 million acres of unleased, available federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The sale comes as administration officials seek to rescind drilling safety rules approved after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, reduce royalties paid by oil companies, and expand offshore drilling into every ocean in the country.

Keep reading... Show less
Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt. Mitchell Resnick

Pruitt to Restrict Use of Scientific Data in EPA Policymaking

In the coming weeks, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to announce a proposal that would limit the type of scientific studies and data the agency can use in crafting public health and environmental regulations.

The planned policy shift, first reported by E&E News, would require the EPA to only use scientific findings whose data and methodologies are made public and can be replicated.

Keep reading... Show less
Mity / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

20% of U.S. Diets Responsible for Almost Half of Country’s Food-Related Emissions, Study Finds

If you've been deliberating about going vegetarian, a study published Tuesday in Environmental Letters might give you the final push.

Keep reading... Show less
Sea Shepherd small boat assists the Liberian Coast Guard to chase down the F/V Hai Lung. Sea Shepherd

Notorious Toothfish Poacher Arrested by Liberian Coast Guard, Assisted by Sea Shepherd

A notorious Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish poaching vessel, famous for plundering the Antarctic, was arrested on March 13 in waters belonging to the West African state of Liberia by the Liberian Coast Guard, with assistance from the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd.

The F/V Hai Lung, known to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) by its previous name "Kily," was transiting through Liberian waters when it was boarded and inspected by a Liberian Coast Guard team working alongside Sea Shepherd crew on board Sea Shepherd's patrol vessel M/Y Sam Simon.

Keep reading... Show less

7 Must-See Films at the 42nd Cleveland International Film Fest

It's that time, again!

EcoWatch is proud to be a media partner of the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), now celebrating its 42nd year. This year, EcoWatch is honored to be sponsoring Anote's Ark. This documentary spotlights Kiribati, a small remote island facing devastating effects due to climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: 'We have approved Bayer's plans to take over Monsanto because the parties' remedies, worth well over €6 billion, meet our competition concerns in full.' EU Commission Twitter

EU Approves Controversial Bayer-Monsanto Merger

The European Union approved Bayer's takeover of Monsanto, a major hurdle in the $66 billion merger that would create the world's largest integrated seed and pesticide conglomerate.

The European Commission said the German chemical-maker's takeover of the St. Louis-based agribusiness giant is "conditional on an extensive remedy package, which addresses the parties' overlaps in seeds, pesticides and digital agriculture."

Keep reading... Show less
Todd Porter & Diane Cu

How Much Daily Activity You Need to Burn off 9 Healthy (But High-Calorie) Foods

By Luke Doyle

A healthy lifestyle is fueled by nutrient-rich foods that give your body the energy it needs. But some of these foods come with high calorie counts and the "healthy" label doesn't mean it's okay to consume unlimited amounts of them.

Keep reading... Show less
Marine debris laden beach in Hawaii. NOAA Marine Debris Program / Flickr

Ocean Plastic Projected to Triple Within Seven Years

If we don't act now, plastic pollution in the world's oceans is projected to increase three-fold within seven years, according to a startling new report.

The Future of the Sea report, released Wednesday for the UK government, found that human beings across the globe produce more than 300 million metric tons of plastic per year. Unfortunately, a lot of that material ends up in our waters, with the total amount of plastic debris in the sea predicted to increase from 50 million metric tons in 2015 to 150 million metric tons by 2025.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!