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Let California lead the way out of our global plastic pollution crisis

California’s 840 miles of coastline are a gateway to stunning underwater scenery that only a few ever see. Kelp forests, deep sea mountains and swirling ocean currents shelter diverse plant and animal species, from playful sea otters and turtles to migrating tuna and gray, humpback, minke and other whale species that call the expansive Pacific their home.

Though they are mostly out of sight, these marine habitats play an essential role in keeping our air and water clean, soaking up excess carbon from the atmosphere and supplying millions with food. When they function properly, people, animals and our fishery and tourism economies thrive.

 But a looming threat to our beautiful, vital ocean ecosystems is becoming all too visible. We have all seen images of turtles munching on plastic bags — mistaking them for food — and beleaguered whales and seals entangled in fishing gear. 

The plastic pollution problem Californians have battled for years is now a crisis: We spend over $520 million annually and utilize thousands of hours of volunteer time cleaning plastics from the state’s iconic beaches. Residents of our coastal communities have seen with their own eyes that the ocean is ground zero for the plastic pollution crisis. 

Worldwide, an estimated 11 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean every year, and researchers expect that to triple over the next two decades. The U.S. is the number one generator of plastic waste in the world — both in total and per capita — and one of the top producers of virgin plastic resin, the building blocks used to make plastic bags, bottles, cigarette butts and more.  

It’s time to acknowledge what has been obvious to scientists and beach cleanup volunteers for years: We produce far too much plastic.

Volunteer beach cleanups are important because they help limit the damage to our coastlines and beaches. But they won’t prevent plastic pollution from getting there in the first place. The only way to truly address this crisis is to tackle the problem at its source, by reducing how much plastic is produced in the first place. 

Plastics harm all marine ecosystems, not just the ones volunteers can see and access. Plastic can be found in distant parts of our ocean, as well as the most remote protected areas on land — places volunteers will never see, let alone try to clean up. Plastic pollution is so ubiquitous that it can be found in our body tissue and even breast milk.

Experts say that to effectively curb plastic pollution, we must eliminate at least half of all global production of single-use plastics by 2050. United Nation member states are convening in Ottawa for the next round of negotiations on the global plastics treaty from April 23-29, but the United States and many other nations have been slow to embrace provisions strong enough to meet this imperative.

And at the federal level, progress on reducing plastics has been limited at best. While we have seen the Department of the Interior move to phase out all single-use plastics on public lands, broader actions are needed.

That’s why in October, one of us joined Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in sponsoring the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. This legislation is the bold stroke needed to curtail plastics nationwide by strengthening provisions for reducing single-use plastics, supporting reuse and refill systems and improving the waste management system by holding producers accountable. 

Unfortunately, in this sharply divided Congress the bill is unlikely to pass.

In the absence of meaningful federal action, some states have stepped up to lead. Particularly, California has recognized this urgency and in 2022 passed SB54, mandating a 25 percent reduction in single-use plastics — the strongest plastics policy in the world. This law on its own would eliminate nearly 23 million tons of single-use plastics — nearly 26 times the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

But we cannot afford to wait for every state and territory to follow California’s example  — especially knowing that many of them will not act.

We must decide whether we’re serious about protecting our oceans, lands, communities and bodies from the scourge of plastic pollution, and then set our priorities accordingly. Federal legislation should be a priority. A strong global treaty is another. 

When we join leaders from around the world in Ottawa later this month for the international plastics treaty negotiations, we will encourage negotiators to look to California as a model for strong measures to reduce plastic production.

Limiting the seemingly endless supply of single-use plastic polluting every corner of the Earth is the only effective way to safeguard ecosystems, communities and our own health from the global plastic pollution crisis. 

The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, and California’s leadership, have provided a vision of what the future could look like once our priorities are in order. Now it’s time for everyone — at the local, federal and international level — to build on that. Everyone must roll up their sleeves and do their part.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) represents California’s 2nd Congressional District. He has introduced several bills in Congress seeking to reduce plastic pollution, including the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act.

Janis Searles Jones is the CEO of Ocean Conservancy.

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