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California eyes bans, use fees to limit plastic waste

After Hawaii, California is the U.S. state that’s probably closest to the vast gyre of plastic waste that swirls in the mid-Pacific, and state officials say they don’t want to contribute any more to the mess.

What’s the solution? The California Ocean Protection Council, which has set a goal of eliminating marine debris, recently proposed a three-prong strategy for getting there: 1) require manufacturers to take back waste packaging for environmentally responsible disposal, 2) ban polystyrene food containers and impose a statewide fee on one-use plastic shopping bags and 3) set user fees for other common waste products.

“The council is confident that this strategy will have far reaching benefit for ocean health and brings about needed action to tackle the marine debris problems plaguing our oceans,” said Mike Chrisman, chairman and secretary of resources at the council. “Our decision today moves California closer to a real solution to reduce the threats to our ocean and coast.”

Numerous individual communities in California and other parts of the U.S. have already adopted similar prohibitions and user fees at the local level. But California officials say a more coordinated, statewide effort is needed to address the growing problem of plastic marine waste.

The effort isn’t driven solely by environmental concerns, either: California says it spent $55 million picking up waste from roads and highways in 2006. Any waste missed tends to make its way toward the ocean, where it creates an unsightly view for the state’s many tourists (a source of $46 billion of income per year).

That’s a lesson other agencies across the U.S. and elsewhere could stand to learn: that eliminating waste before it creates problems ultimately makes economic sense too.

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