Once in the ocean, plastic takes ages to decompose. The manmade junk either collects into floating trash islands called "garbage patches," or it breaks into smaller pieces that harm and kill sea creatures throughout the food chain.
It's a complex problem with no easy fix, but two California legislators have introduced an "extended producer responsibility" bill that would require manufacturers to figure out how to keep the most common plastic junk out of state waterways. The proposal, Assembly Bill 521, aims to reduce 95 percent of plastic pollution along the state's coastline by 2024.
The Assembly Appropriations Committee will vote on the bill Friday. If it passes, the measure will go before the full chamber next week and would face several other legislative hurdles before it could become law.
But supporters say the idea is to influence the private sector to make more environmentally friendly packaging and have businesses pick up the cost of collecting and disposing plastic trash, shifting that burden away from local governments.
"Cities and counties spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year cleaning up plastic trash that is on its way into the ocean," said state Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay, one of the bill's sponsors.
"Isn't an increased cost tied to a making a new product that is causing a problem better than a taxpayer paying for it after it becomes a problem?" he asked.
If a plastic manufacturer doesn't comply with the reduction targets mandated by the proposal, each violation could cost up to $1,000 per day. For "intentional, knowing or negligent" violations, companies could be fined up to $10,000 per violation per day.
The regulation is just the latest California legislation seeking to address some of the world's toughest environmental problems, often at the expense of private business, critics say.
The state's large economy and population has already influenced automakers to produce cleaner burning cars, forced warning labels for toxic chemicals on a range of consumer products and put a price on heat-trapping carbon emissions from industrial sources.
"With nearly 40 million people in the state, what happens here matters whether it is cap-and-trade and renewable energy portfolio standards, solid waste reduction, water conservation," said Mark Gold, associate director of the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
"What happens in California matters both nationally and globally," he added.
Gold said the legislation won't solve the plastic pollution problem, but it could have a wide-ranging effect and would be the first significant proposal to try to reduce the amount of plastic junk in the ocean that makes up trash formations such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, known as the world's largest landfill.
The plastic industry, California Chamber of Commerce and other business have lined up in opposition to the bill, saying they already fund recycling and other programs to reduce marine plastic pollution. Plus, they say, the bill asks manufacturers to develop new products or other ways to reduce trash, but it doesn't say how.
"This bill would establish responsibility for manufacturers alone to somehow reduce litter, and it's unclear how the manufacturers might do that," said Keith Christman of the Washington DC-based American Chemistry Council, a plastic manufacturing industry group.
"This is something that traditionally was a function of government working with the private sector — but this bill seeks to put all the responsibility on manufacturers," he said.
These types of extended producer responsibility laws have already taken root in more than two dozen European countries.
In France, nearly 90 percent of consumer products are part of the "Green Dot" program, requiring manufacturers to pay into a program that recovers and recycles packaging materials. It has successfully influenced manufacturers there to cut down on packaging or use alternative materials.
Environmental groups have lined up in support of the bill, applauding California's leadership on such regulations.
Proponents say the proposal is a good first step from a big market, adding that if the problem goes unchecked, the islands of plastic junk in the world's oceans will continue to grow.