Discharges of plastics into the environment are steadily increasing, both in aggregate amounts and in associated environmental and health concerns. The United Nations has estimated that plastic debris accounts for at least 85 percent of total marine waste; an estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans annually, and on current trends this will triple by 2040. In response to these concerns, the state of California is creating laws and regulations intended to reduce plastics discharges in the state. In addition to plastics recycling requirements (the state “bottle bill” and others), California has created a focus on “microplastics.” In February 2022, the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) adopted a new Statewide Microplastics Strategy (the Strategy); the rest of this note provides general background on California’s approaches to plastics and microplastics, and summarizes the Strategy.
What are microplastics and how does California address them?
The Strategy provides a single general definition of the term, and identifies two distinct sources:
In this Strategy, microplastics are defined as “solid polymeric materials to which chemical additives or other substances may have been added” and which have “at least three dimensions that range from 1 nm to 5 mm in size” consistent with the definition adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board [SWRCB] in 2020. Polymers that are derived in nature that have not been chemically modified (other than by hydrolysis) are excluded. Further, plastic particles larger than 5 mm in size are considered macroplastics.
This definition includes preproduction plastic pellets (‘nurdles’) that spill from manufacturing facilities, which have been targeted for regulation by SWRCB’s industrial stormwater permitting program since 2015 (I wrote about that program, which modifies national requirements, HERE). In 2018, California enacted legislation requiring SWRCB to address microplastics in drinking water (Senate Bill (SB) 1422), and OPC to develop a Statewide Microplastics Strategy to address microplastics in the ambient marine environment (SB 1263).
What does the Statewide Microplastics Strategy entail?
This Statewide Microplastic Strategy fulfills OPC’s duty under SB 1263, and provides a “multi-year roadmap for California to take a national and global leadership role in managing microplastics pollution” through a two-track approach to manage microplastic pollution.
The first track lists 22 immediate, “no regrets” actions and multi-benefit solutions to reduce and manage microplastic pollution, based on current scientific understanding:
Pollution Prevention: Eliminate plastic waste at the source (products or materials from which microplastics originate), using
Product and material regulations, expanding existing programs (such as restrictions on single-use plastics)
Economic strategies, which may include taxes, fees, subsidies, consumer rebates, or extended producer responsibility (EPR) (I wrote about product stewardship and EPR HERE and HERE)
Identifying and advancing product alternatives to reduce production and discharge of microplastics
Pathway Interventions: Intervene within specific pathways (stormwater runoff, wastewater, aerial deposition) that mobilize microplastics into California waters.
Stormwater, including trash capture (noting the SWRCB stormwater permit requirements)
Wastewater, referencing studies underway for removal of microplastics from wastewaters
Aerial transport, from road and tire wear
Outreach & Education: Engage and inform the public and industries of microplastic sources, impacts, and solutions.
The second track outlines a 13-point comprehensive research strategy to enhance the scientific understanding of microplastics in California and inform future action:
Monitoring: Standardize a statewide monitoring approach. Understand and identify trends of microplastic pollution statewide.
Risk Thresholds & Assessment: Improve understanding of impacts to aquatic life and human health.
Sources and Pathways Prioritization: Identify and prioritize future management solutions based on local data.
Evaluating New Solutions: Develop and implement future pollution prevention and pathway intervention solutions.
The Strategy also addresses implementation of the initiatives presented above. It discusses continuation and strengthening of federal, state and local government partnerships, as well as ongoing outreach and education efforts to support and strengthen the efforts.
What happens now?
The OPC does not have regulatory authority, but it seems likely that the California Legislature will continue to support laws, regulations and funding efforts consistent with the priorities set forth in the new Statewide Microplastics Strategy. I expect continuing pressure to reduce the availability of products that result – directly or indirectly -- in the production of microplastics that end up in the environment. Outside California, similar initiatives are underway with varying levels of legal and economic support. Notably, in March 2022 the United Nations Environment Assembly of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) adopted a general resolution asking UNEP's Executive director to convene a negotiating committee to draft an international treaty to address plastic pollution (including marine pollution); this effort will take a number of years but should crystallize international attention to the issue.
Does the organization produce or use materials that contain microplastics or which produce microplastics as they are used or disposed?
If so, does the organization manage these activities to minimize the extent to which microplastics will be produced?
If so, does the organization manage these activities to minimize the release of microplastics into the environment, directly or via waste streams?
If the organization’s activities do or may produce microplastics, has the organization investigated whether changes in inputs and activities would reduce such production?
If the organization’s activities do or may produce microplastics, has the organization implemented changes in inputs and activities to reduce such production?
Where can I go for more information?
- Statewide Microplastics Strategy (2/22)
- UN Environment Assembly, Resolution "End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument"
About the Author
Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 30 years.
Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).
Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).
You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org