Each September, tens of thousands of Californians participate in the annual Coastal Cleanup day – a litter-gathering event the Guinness Book of World Records once recognized as the largest garbage collection ever organized.

Organizers tally and categorize the debris that volunteers remove from beaches and watersheds.

What do you suppose the top three items are?

Just about anyone ought to able to guess the top two: cigarette butts and food wrappers. But to guess No. 3, it may help to spend a Saturday afternoon cleaning up Ballona Creek or any of the many beaches, creeks, and rivers throughout greater Los Angeles. Or visit a youth soccer field after a long day of play. After that, you’d know the answer is plastic bottle caps.

Active kids drink water. Much of the water comes from plastic bottles, and Californians purchase 1.7 billion beverages in these bottles each year. Most of the bottles have small, detachable caps that have a way of slipping from sweaty hands, missing the mark when tossed toward a trash can or simply being idly discarded.

In California, five billon caps each year are landfilled or littered. An untold number make their way into our creeks and rivers and are washed into the Pacific.

Plastic bottle caps are small, buoyant and easy for marine wildlife to ingest – frequently with fatal results. An increasing number of fish sold in local grocery stores have fragments of plastic consumer products in their stomachs. Plastic debris absorbs high concentrations of pollutants from ocean water, turning small pieces of plastic debris into poison pills in our seafood.

Regulations that require communities like Culver City to stop trash from entering the storm drain system mean that taxpayers foot the bill for the millions of dollars spent each year cleaning litter off city streets. Reducing the quantity of material that can be littered is a simple way to reduce these costs. Because of advances in bottling technology, today there is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to make bottle caps disappear: connect the caps.

Some bottled water producers, including Crystal Geyser, are already offering products with tethered caps.  Making the switch can be accomplished by adding a small blade to current capping equipment that inserts a slit into the cap. Alternatively, since most bottlers replace capping machinery every few years anyway, a relatively quick transition to tethered caps could happen when equipment is being replaced.

There is precedent for this kind of simple packaging switch, and evidence that it produces astounding results.  During the 1970s, nearly every aluminum beer and soda can in American came with a “pop top” detachable ring. They quickly became a ubiquitous nuisance, littering landscapes and seascapes everywhere.

And then the industry perfected and embraced the “stay top,” which pops open the can but remains attached and connected to the can throughout its life cycle. Those irksome aluminum rings simply disappeared from the scene.

The exact same opportunity exists today to make a simple, practical and affordable packaging change that could rid the environment of an unsightly and harmful nuisance.

The timing for such a transition is ideal because this past January 1, China, which had been the principal destination for recyclable plastics from the United States and Europe, stopped accepting plastic waste imports. California must find new ways to deal with plastic waste, and in-state plastic recyclers want those caps.

A bill now advancing in the Legislature, AB 319 by Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), mandates the use of tethered caps on plastic bottles.  The solution is available and practical, and the switch can be made without disrupting any existing businesses or industry.

It’s time to clean up the mess and connect the caps.