Postcard from California: Can new laws slow the “plastics pandemic?”

In July, a 130-foot vessel called the Kwai docked in Sausalito carrying a sickening cargo: 96 tons of plastic garbage and other trash recovered from the Pacific Ocean during a 45-day voyage from Honolulu.

Before arriving in California, the Kwai had sailed through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – an area more than twice the size of Texas that has been described as a “cloudy soup” of plastic debris and other trash accumulating in a vortex of swirling ocean currents.

The voyage was a project of the nonprofit Ocean Voyages Institute in partnership with the government of the Marshall Islands, which like other island nations is acutely threatened by rising sea levels from the melting of polar ice caps and icebergs. Since 2009, the institute’s Pacific expeditions have recovered nearly 700,000 pounds of trash; 340,000 pounds were collected in 2020 alone.

Each year, approximately 460 million metric tons of these plastics become plastic waste, and more than 90 percent does not get recycled.