UCLA Study Urges Global Treaty on Plastic Litter

Mark Gold, the former president of Heal the Bay, is part of a team at UCLA that released today a comprehensive policy brief about abating the never-ending stream of plastic marine litter. He serves as associate director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, which released the study in conjunction with the university’s School of Law. Here he shares with us some of its findings:

An estimated 20 million tons of plastic litter enter the ocean every year. And plastic trash has been known to impact more than 600 species of marine life.  Recent EPA estimates of the economic cost of marine litter range in the $500 million a year range -- an average cost of over $13 per person per year. Despite the scope and scale of the plastic pollution problems in the ocean, international law and policies have been largely ineffectual in stemming the continued growth of the problem.  Some of the most remote places on the planet have major plastic pollution problems. 

Despite the dire and growing problem, there are numerous success stories locally and around the world.  Many nations have banned single use plastic bags and over 10 million Californians live in plastic bag free cities.  Over 100 other cities have banned single use foam packaging.  The European Union has enacted extended producer responsibility programs that have greatly reduced plastic waste.  Some 10 states in the United States have bottle and can redemption fee programs that capture over 70% of the waste generated from those beverage containers. And California is planning to follow the Los Angeles region’s lead in passing a zero trash policy to reduce or eliminate trash in urban areas that goes to our rivers, beaches and coastal waters after a major rain.

 However, even with the development of numerous global and international marine trash reduction laws, policies and plans, the plastic pollution problem continues to grow.  The report authors analyzed the legal shortcomings in these international legal mechanisms and made a list of the top ten actions that need to be undertaken to solve the crisis. 

The top recommendation is to develop a new comprehensive international treaty with strong monitoring, assessment, programmatic funding and enforcement mechanisms.

 Additional potential actions include:

  • creation of an “ocean-friendly” product certification program
  • regional and national bans on the most common and damaging types of plastic litter
  • expansion of extended producer responsibility programs that provide an economic incentive for manufacturers to manage plastic waste sustainably
  • creation and implementation of certification and tracking programs for fishing and aquaculture operations
  • establishment of funding sources for marine litter remediation through product redemption fees and shipping container fees at ports.

No individual action will solve the plastic marine litter crisis, but swift implementation of the recommendations on a global scale could finally stem the tide of this critical environmental problem.

The full report can be accessed here.