A surfer walks on Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia during the monsoon season, when onshore winds bring large amounts of trash to the shores of Bali’s west coast.
Surfer on Kuta Beach Onshore winds bring large amounts of trash to the shore © Jason Childs

Stories in California

It’s Now or Forever

Let’s stop the flow of plastic waste.

Updated January 21, 2021

Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time. The production and incineration of plastics is a major contributor to climate change. Plastic waste is also choking our waterways, polluting our oceans, killing wildlife and infiltrating our food supply. If current trends continue, roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in our landfills or polluting the environment by 2050—the equivalent of almost 80 million blue whales.

As the plastic problem continues to snowball, we must work quickly to take bold and decisive actions to turn the tide on plastic waste. TNC is making progress in the fight against plastic waste in California and around the world through scientific research, technological innovation and bold policy solutions. Read on to learn more about our work as well as what you can do to join the fight. 

Plastic pollution by the numbers:

  • 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year

    8

    million tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year

  • 530 marine species have been impacted by plastics in our oceans

    530

    marine species have been impacted by plastics in our oceans

  • 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year

    300

    million tons of plastic are produced every year

  • 50% of global plastic is discarded after a single-use and can take centuries to break down in the marine environment

    50%

    of plastic produced is discarded after a single use

Join the fight

Despite the challenge before us, we have some easy steps that you can take today to help fight plastic pollution.

  • Reduce your own plastic use: Eight of the 10 most common items found in beach cleanups are single-use food-related items. Whenever possible, say “no” to single-use plastic foodware items by bringing your own reusable items and supporting local businesses that are going plastic-free. Learn more about how to reduce your plastic footprint.

  • Participate in cleanup efforts: Help keep our oceans and coastlines pristine by starting your own cleanup or joining an existing one. The California Coastal Commission organizes an annual Coastal Cleanup Day. TNC also offers events throughout the year to keep our oceans and coastlines pristine. Get outside with us.

  • Your vote is your voice: Your vote is one of the most powerful tools for change. Over 870,000 California voters signed on to qualify the “Plastics Free California Initiative” for the ballot. If approved by voters, the initiative will allow California to take important steps to reduce single-use plastic waste sold, increase recycling and composting, restore and protect nature, and mitigate impacts of plastic pollution on low income communities. Learn more about the Plastics Free California Ballot Initiative below, as well as other state plastics policies that your representatives can advance.

How You Can Help

Scroll through these photos to learn some easy steps that you can take today to help fight plastic pollution.

Smiling woman in a coffee shop with two ceramic mugs.
A volunteer picks up trash along a dirt road.
A person fills a TNC water bottle at a public fountain.
Pantry full of glass jars.
A wooden spoon, fork and knife and carrying case.

What TNC is Doing to Drastically Reduce Plastic Pollution 

All phases of the plastic “life cycle”—from creation to consumption to disposal to clean up—present opportunities to reduce waste and better protect the environment and communities. TNC is focusing our efforts in three critical areas to drastically reduce plastic pollution:  

  • Scientific research to develop a better understanding of key aspects of the plastics problem

  • Technology and design thinking to create new solutions to reduce plastic waste 

  • High impact policy to reduce plastic waste
Plastic: It's Now or Forever Hear how TNC is advancing research aimed at understanding key aspects of the problem, driving high-impact policy to reduce plastic flows, and leveraging technology and design-thinking to create new solutions. We also share some easy lifestyle changes that you can make to reduce plastic pollution.

Tackling Plastics with Science and Innovation  

TNC is taking a partner-based and science-driven approach to reducing plastic use, improving waste infrastructure and better tracking and removing plastic from marine and terrestrial systems here in California and around the globe. 

TNC’s foundational science efforts are aimed at:

  • Filling key data gaps to better monitor how plastic waste moves through California communities and into the environment

  • Improving methods to capture plastic microfibers that impact marine species, the quality of our seafood, and end up in the fields where we grow our food

  • Reducing plastic pollution associated with fishing activities

TNC will also leverage new technologies and business models to reduce plastic consumption and pollution, while incentivizing the protection and restoration of healthy ocean habitats and lands. As a first step, we launched a new partnership with the design firm IDEO to prioritize our efforts to address plastic pollution in areas where we have the potential to make the greatest impact.   

A group of people in a conference room with photo displays, large note sheets and post-it notes on the wall.
PLASTICS THINK TANK TNC is working with IDEO to convene a diverse group of experts to explore and develop transformative solutions for reducing plastic pollution. © IDEO

Capturing Microfibers

Though barely visible to the naked eye, microfibers, many of which originate from synthetic clothing, have been found in coastal and deep ocean waters off California. These microplastics work their way up the food chain, soak up other toxins, and are ingested by a wide range of marine animals from tiny plankton to fish and seabirds.  They have even been found in our seafood supply and on our farm lands, introducing serious questions about the long-term impacts to human health. 

A graphic showing that a single load of laundry can release 700,000 plastic microfibers that pollute oceans, land, rivers.
Microfibers Plastic microfibers polluting our planet. © TNC

To better understand this problem, TNC partnered with UC Santa Barbara on a first of its kind study to quantify synthetic microfiber release in California from 2007 to 2019. The findings were nothing short of shocking:

  • In 2019 alone, up to 13.3 quadrillion microfibers entered aquatic and terrestrial systems. 

  • With global production of synthetic textiles expected to triple by 2050, the volume of microfibers flowing into the environment is expected to grow rapidly. 

  • Despite microfibers being captured in wastewater treatment facilities, they re-enter the environment when sewage sludge is spread on largely agricultural fields. 

TNC is hard at work combatting this crisis. With science and policy-based interventions, we can stop the flow of microfibers.

Bold Policy

While California has a history of leading the country in environmental policy, we have just begun to address plastics pollution in our state. In order to accelerate California’s efforts, TNC is partnering with state lawmakers to advance ambitious and effective policy solutions that will increase the pace and scale of plastic solutions throughout California. Here are some important policy actions we’re working on:

  • Plastic Pollution Reduction Policies—With less than 10% of plastic waste currently getting recycled, we know a critical part of the solution is advancing legislation that encourages the reduction of plastic waste before it is created. TNC has been actively informing and supporting bills in the California State Legislature that would facilitate statewide reductions in waste generated from single-use plastic packaging and foodware and improve data reporting requirements for retailers to better track progress towards state waste reduction goals. 

  • Plastics Free California Ballot Initiative—We met our goal! A big thanks to the over 870,000 California voters who signed on to qualify the “Plastics Free California Initiative'' for the ballot. If qualified and approved by voters, plastics manufacturers would be charged a 1-cent tax on each piece of plastics packaging and foodware to go towards restoration of oceans, rivers and beaches, as well as innovations in plastic recycling and composting. The initiative would also reduce single-use plastic packaging and foodware sold by 25% and require all remaining single-use plastic packaging and foodware to be recyclable or compostable by 2030.

Proposed plastic reduction policies in the California legislature combined with the “Plastics Free California Ballot Initiative” can work together to dramatically reduce plastic pollution in our state. These measures would make all plastic packaging truly recyclable or compostable, change how items are packaged and reduce the production of single-use plastics.

Oceans Program Director, Tom Dempsey, and External Affairs Policy Associate, Isabella Gonzalez Potter, visit the CA Capitol.
PLASTICS ADVOCACY DAY Oceans Program Director, Tom Dempsey, and External Affairs Policy Associate, Isabella Gonzalez Potter, visit the California State Capitol to advocate for plastic pollution reduction policies. © Alexis Jackson

Looking to the Future

Global change is required to tackle the plastics crisis around the world, but there is reason to be hopeful. We have seen California leadership on plastics spark progress across the nation. California straw-upon-request and plastic bag ban policies quickly scaled to states across the country. However, California must continue to take more progressive and comprehensive steps to remain an international leader in the effort to reduce plastic flows. We can’t afford to wait while our plastic problems escalate. 

Long term solutions will require tremendous innovation and a fundamental rethinking of many aspects of our current economy, but we know California is up to the task. TNC is building solutions here at home while  simultaneously collaborating with colleagues around the world to fight plastic pollution at scale. By working together we can ensure that future generations inherit a more pristine environment. We must act now - our oceans and lands are worth it.

An overflowing dumpster at the edge of a field.
DROWNING IN PLASTIC 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year. © TNC