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Sierra magazine
Message in a Bottle

Seabirds are starving with bellies full of trash. Fur seals in New Zealand poop shards of yellow and blue. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas. Now the bad news: Plastic never goes away, and scientists are finding that it absorbs toxins with spongelike efficiency. The fix? Cut it off at the source.

By David Ferris

Part 3: The Lawyer


"We know where it comes from," state official Drew Bohan says of the litter clogging California's 840-mile shoreline. "The solutions shouldn't be that difficult."
In the hot, flat city of Sacramento, California, 80 miles from the coast, Drew Bohan toils in an office near the State Capitol. On the wall is a photo of Goleta Slough, a green little wetland he tried to protect when he ran an organization called Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. He also took kids on boat tours and sued a smelter to clean up a dump on a pickleweed marsh. Good times. Now, however, Bohan has moved inland, toward the sources of the problem he's been hired to solve.

Bohan, 46, is the executive policy officer for the California Ocean Protection Council, a task force created by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to repair the state's abused coastline. Litter tops the agenda. California's multitudes (at 36 million, it's the most populous state in the country) and economy (fifth largest in the world) generate a Sierra Nevada of waste, some of which blows on the wind or flows via rivers and storm drains to the 840-mile shoreline. There, it floats about children's ankles and erodes the coast's $25 billion tourist economy.

Yet Bohan, an attorney with spectacles and boyish brown hair, remains optimistic. "Getting our junk out of the ocean isn't even all that hard," he says. "It is well within our ability to fix. We know where it comes from. The solutions shouldn't be that difficult."

Not that California hasn't tried. The state has run don't-pollute education campaigns for decades, and beach towns have mounted huge cleanups. Los Angeles County collects more than 4,000 tons of trash annually on its beaches. Today, the council is trying a new tack, assigning a representative from every agency with coastal jurisdiction--toxics, solid waste, water, parks, transportation, environmental protection, everybody--to the same panel, along with members of the state senate and assembly. The council, endowed with $90 million in bond money to insulate it from events like the current state budget crisis, meets four times a year.

In the summer of 2006, the staffs of these agencies met to vet a list of 63 ideas for tidying the shore. At Bohan's urging, they made a key decision: Spare the litterbug, mostly. Don't even clean up after him. Instead, identify the most offending types of litter and cut them off at the source.

"We could keep cleaning up all we want, but it's not going to matter unless we get to the sources of the debris," says Eben Schwartz, head of the Ocean Protection Council's steering committee. "It's not just a consumer issue; it's a producer issue. And Drew got that right away. He has been moving us in a direction so that everyone involved in this issue has a stake in resolving it."

The first target emerged in 2007 when council members received baseball caps declaring them the "Nurdle Posse." Those tiny spheroids that have caused Captain Moore so much consternation were the easiest fix. Nurdles are so small that the state had never bothered to regulate them. Lawmakers closed that loophole later that year, but enforcement hasn't started yet because of the state's money woes.

Previously, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board had been putting the screws to the Slurpee lids and sandwich wrappers that foul the waterways of the L.A. Basin. In 2001, the board informed the communities on the banks of the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek--49 municipalities in all--that trash in the water would no longer be tolerated.

By September 2009, those communities along 60 miles of river must reduce their runoff by half or face fines of up to $10,000 a day. Cities are scrambling to meet the goal with vacuum trucks and new and better grates. "We intend to enforce the law where necessary," says Tracy Egoscue, the board's executive officer. Up north, the San Francisco Bay Area is developing a similar scheme.

Other Garbage Patch ingredients face extermination if the Ocean Protection Council can prod politicians and consumers to act. Take plastic bags, for example: Rather than the outright ban recently enacted in countries from China to Tanzania, the council recommends a statewide 25-cent fee for paper and plastic grocery sacks. This would nudge shoppers toward reusable totes, like the blue Trader Joe's bag that Bohan keeps in his trunk.

The council also argues for a ban on polystyrene containers, the stuff of Chinese takeout and gas station coffee. They keep food hot, but they float like rafts and break up readily into serving-size bits for fish and birds.

Another quarry are the drink caps, straws, and other errata of convenience that litter the beaches. Every McDonald's lid and Odwalla bottle seal could draw a fee, or manufacturers could be required to integrate the castoffs into the container, like California did with pull-tab aluminum cans in the 1970s. All the fees that the council's proposals generate would go toward education and enforcement.

The political tide seems to be with the health of the ocean as demands for "extended producer responsibility" intensify globally. In the 1990s, Germany inaugurated the Green Dot system, putting manufacturers on the hook for recovering throwaways. Plastic waste dropped by 14 percent, plastic recycling shot up to 75 percent (compared with 5.5 percent in the United States), and industry redesigned products for a lighter environmental impact, an approach that has spread through much of Europe.

California's Green Chemistry laws, signed by Schwarzenegger last year, followed Europe toward another sea change. They empowered the state to document the chemicals in all products and to ban or phase out any that might cause harm, such as those that spur cancer or alter hormones. One day such laws might protect not just humans but also marine life.

"We fully embrace innovation in doing more with less," says Steve Russell, managing director of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, which predictably prefers public education and incentives to government mandates.

For his part, Moore is glad that humanity is beginning to recognize that the ocean won't provide for us if we treat it like a trash bin. But he doubts that government intervention will do much good if it's not accompanied by a widespread change of heart. "Everything has to be valued, and we have to have a zero-waste philosophy as opposed to a throwaway philosophy," he says, sliding the handful of nurdles into his pocket for later recycling. "It's going to be radical."

Then he turns and hikes back up the bank toward his Prius, which, like most energy-efficient cars, is composed largely of strong, lightweight plastic.

David Ferris follows the Garbage Patch and other stories of a crowded planet at theferrisfiles.com. For more on what you can do, go to algalita.org.

Photo: Gerry McIntyre GMPdigital

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