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Climate and Environment

Many Of Our 'Recyclables' End Up On Beaches

A seagull holds an empty bag of chips in its mouth while standing in coastal waters.
Avila Beach.
(Tim Mossholder
Unsplash )
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It turns out that even those of us who fancy ourselves responsible recyclers are contributing to the waste in the ocean, and misinformation is a big reason why.

Once a year, about one million people around the world head to their local beaches on the third Saturday in September to remove trash from the ocean. Since the Ocean Conservancy launched the international day of action 35 years ago, volunteers have cleaned up five million pounds of trash in the annual California Coastal CleanUp Day alone.

But why is there so much pollution in our oceans to begin with?

While picking up trash, the Ocean Conservancy has been tracking what it finds and recently released a new analysis of 35 years worth of data that reveals systemic problems with our plastic waste management system, including the part we play individually.

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It’s what Ocean Conservancy Chief Scientist George Leonard calls a “recycling crisis.”

“Seventy percent of the most commonly collected items over that 35-year period were effectively unrecyclable,” said Leonard. “And about half of those include food and beverage items. Things like food wrappers, straws, and stirrers.”

A list of the top items found in the ocean. Cigarette butts, plastic bottles, and food wrappers were the top three.
(Courtesy of the Ocean Conservancy )

The Big Misconception About Recycling

You know the logo on the bottom of your plastic that has a number and three arrows? That’s commonly called the “chasing arrow” symbol and it stands for what kind of plastic was used to make the item. It does not mean that plastic can actually be recycled.

Chasing arrows with a 1 or 2 in the center are usually recyclable in our blue bins.
  • Everything else is just trash.

But most of us just look for the chasing arrow and toss the item in the blue bin, never thinking that our strawberry containers, etc. could wash up next to us at the Santa Monica Pier.

Leonard argues that emblem is false advertising and a big contributor to ocean trash. “A lot of people who are looking to do the right thing will look at that symbol,” he said. “But the Waste Management System will remove those from the recycling stream.”

A bucket of trash collected by volunteers during California Coastal Cleanup Day includes with a soda can and a chip bag.
A bucket of trash collected by volunteers during a California Coastal Cleanup Day.
(Courtesy of the Ocean Conservancy )

In reality, so few plastic products are recyclable that only about 10% actually get recycled. And then just 10% of that gets recycled more than once. “What that effectively means is that only about 1% of plastics can be considered circular in any sense,” said Leonard. “So the vast majority of plastic is at present commercially and effectively unrecyclable.”

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So Even If They’re Not Recycled, Why Are Some Plastics Ending Up In The Ocean?

Direct littering: you can drop a plastic fork on a street miles away from the beach. But eventually that fork will get washed into a local river or stream that leads to the ocean.

From waste infrastructure: the contents of garbage cans that are too full or without a lid blow away and become litter. Similarly, waste blows off dump trucks on the way to the landfill.

Environmental dumping: when our plastic waste is exported to countries or municipalities with loose environmental laws, they can be disposed of directly into a river that leads to the ocean.

Will There Be A Time When Coastal Cleanup Day Won’t Be Necessary?

Leonard says individuals can take their own initiative to use reusable items such as water bottles, straws, and shopping bags as much as possible. “But what we really need if we're going to solve this problem at scale, is broader systemic change,” he said. “And that's going to require governments and the private sector to step-up and change their practices.”

The Ocean Conservancy has been pushing for three California bills currently on the governor’s desk. One of them, Senate Bill 343, would require a plastic’s recyclability to be more clearly labeled.

And on a federal level, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Actwould mandate the use of recycled content.

In the meantime, you can roll up your sleeves and head to your local beach Saturday, Sept. 18 for California Coastal Cleanup Day. Or check in with Heal The Bay for cleanups going on all month.

What questions do you have about Southern California?