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Litter can be a personal issue. For some, the shock of seeing sea lions munching on plastic bags spurs the urge to volunteer for beach clean-ups. For others, the importance of keeping our water clean hits home when family members get sick after a swim at a contaminated beach. But for many, soda bottles, food wrappers, and cigarette butts are just bits of muck that hit the street and wash away, forgotten. That waste doesn't just disappear, though, and it can be costly to clean up. As revealed in a new report produced on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council by Kier Associates, California cities, towns, and tax payers, are shouldering $428 million per year in costs to stop litter from becoming pollution that harms the environment, tourism and other economic activity.

The new report shows the costs to 95 California communities of litter abatement activities such as street sweeping, storm drain maintenance, and beach cleanup. The study builds on data collected in two previous EPA studies, and synthesizes additional data solicited from dozens of California cities. Kier Associates found that regardless of their size, California communities are spending significant amounts to combat and clean up litter, and to keep it from ending up in the state's rivers, lakes, canals and ocean.

Because of the ever-growing quantity of single-use plastic packaging, California communities are bearing the costs of preventing litter from becoming pollution in the State's precious waterways. To help solve this problem, we need to go to the source: the best course of action is to stop products from becoming litter in the first place, by increasing recycling rates, and reducing the use of disposable plastic items, such as bags and polystyrene cups, which easily escape into the environment.

California needs to continue to advance upstream source reduction and improved recycling. We need the producers of cheap, disposable plastic packaging -- which constitutes the largest and most harmful quantity of litter -- to take their share of responsibility for the end-of-life management of their products. This should include providing support to California communities with the implementation of Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plans and implementation of Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit requirements. Los Angeles County's TMDL, for example, requires southern Californian cities discharging into the river to reduce their trash contribution by 10 percent each year, for a period of ten years, with a goal of zero trash by 2015.

We can implement changes to more fairly share the financial and logistical burden of the ever-growing quantity of plastic trash between local governments, taxpayers and the plastic producers. This reasonable system would create incentives for producers to develop safer and less wasteful products and packaging. And increased recycling will create jobs in California, while protecting the health and beauty of California's treasured coastline and waterways.

last revised 10/7/2013

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