As discouraging as the news may seem, there are simple things we can do to help. As individuals, we can refuse single-use plastic items, including plastic bags, take-away coffee cups, utensils, straws, polystyrene cups and clamshells, single-use water bottles, and all unnecessary plastic packaging.
Most importantly, we must hold the petrochemical industry and plastic producers to account, and we must insist that leaders at every level pass legislation to protect people, planet—and plankton!
(Join us in cities across North County San Diego to advocate for common-sense single-use plastic policies. Upcoming city council meetings during which plastics reduction measures will be discussed include Oceanside on August 4th, Carlsbad on August 14th, and San Marcos on September 14th. Please read the Surfrider San Diego blog post about the reluctant city council in Oceanside, and see the document linked HERE for details about all the upcoming meetings.)
Mylar balloons have really been blowing this week! In fact, I picked up six during my beach walk in North County on Wednesday.
By now, most people realize that when released, helium-filled balloons will eventually burst or deflate and will descend to Earth as harmful debris. As ocean pollution, they can injure or kill shorebirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles, but they can also be caught by westerly winds and be blown all the way to Anza-Borrego State Park where they may harm desert tortoises and other wildlife.
Sicco Rood, UC Irvine staff research associate at the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, has seen the inland problem first-hand: “I find these balloons and their strings and ribbons littering and tangled up in cacti and other plants in pristine areas of desert on a daily basis.” To address the issue, Sicco started a Change.org petition seeking to Ban Harmful Helium Filled Mylar Balloons in San Diego County California. Sicco is also working with Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter volunteers to advocate for ordinances, and the campaign has recently been featured in the local news (links below).
Environmental impacts to San Diego’s coastal and desert regions aren’t the only reasons to consider banning helium-filled balloons. Mylar balloons conduct electricity, and when they contact power lines, they may cause power outages, and they can even spark wildfires. Sadly, Mylar balloons caused the 2013 Deer FIre which burned 11,429 acres and injured five people in Northern California. A startling video, taken by a resident of Long Beach who captured an explosion, highlights what can happen when Mylar balloons get caught on power lines.
Injuries to wildlife, explosions, power outages, and fires should be reason enough to ban mylar balloons, but we must also consider that helium is a non-renewable resource. Serious shortages have occurred in the past with potential impacts to healthcare, industry, science, and technology. Consequently, instead of filling party balloons with it, helium should be reserved for essential purposes such as MRIs, respiratory treatments, high speed internet, and telecommunications.
In an article published by the BBC in 2012, Tom Welton, a professor of sustainable chemistry, stated “When you see that we’re literally just letting it float into the air, and then out into space inside those helium balloons, it’s just hugely frustrating. It is absolutely the wrong use of helium.”
Fortunately, there are innumerable ways to celebrate more sustainably (and creatively), including making prayer flags out of scrap fabric or decorating with recycled paper flowers—and if balloons are a must, air-filled stick balloons are still an option.
For more information, including additional ideas for balloon-free celebrations, please visit balloonsblow.org, and to find out how you can support the San Diego County campaign, email RAP@surfridersd.org.
According to the study, which was published on June 10th in Nature Sustainability, plastic bags, beverage bottles, food containers, cutlery, and wrappers are “the top polluting products and accounted for almost half of all objects found.” In fact, lead researcher Carmen Morales-Caselles from the University of Cádiz in Spain, stated “We were not surprised about plastic being 80% of the litter, but the high proportion of takeaway items did surprise us,…”
The researchers concluded that bans on single-use items are one of the best options for stopping plastic pollution. Unfortunately, council members in Oceanside rejected the Marine Debris Reduction Ordinance proposed by city staff and plan to enact a resolution instead. There is nothing inherently wrong with a resolution, but a resolution that does not require mandatory compliance is not an adequate response to the plastic pollution crisis. Needless to say, Oceanside’s leaders will no longer be able argue that single-use plastics are not a city-level responsibility, because this research makes the disposable takeaway problem undeniable and highlights the need to mitigate plastic pollution at all levels of government: local, state, and federal.
Even though the Oceanside City Council is being shortsighted, there is much to celebrate. Vista city officials have taken a proactive stance, and later this month, council members will vote on an ordinance that will require that service ware items (utensils, straws, stirrers, etc.) be provided only upon request starting on August 1, 2021. In addition, polystyrene (Styrofoam) containers will be phased out by July 1, 2023. (Read the Agenda Report here.) If passed, Vista will be the first city along the 78-highway corridor and the first inland city in San Diego County to enact a single-use plastics ordinance.
With that said, we need support to ensure Vista’s ordinance passes. We also need help with urging the Oceanside City Council to direct staff to develop a comprehensive ordinance that will compliment and strengthen the proposed resolution.
For an eye-opening video about our dependence on convenience, watch The Story of a Spoon, and then, join me in taking action by participating in the upcoming city council meetings in Vista on June 22nd and in Oceanside on August 4th.
For general council meeting participation details and ideas, visit City Council Participation Tips and Fact Sheets, and for information on how you can contribute in North County, please leave a reply or email email@example.com.
Sand toys found on the beach make fun designs, but plastic toys can be harmful to children.
According to new research from the Technical University of Denmark, “Out of 419 chemicals found in hard, soft, and foam plastic materials used in children toys, we identified 126 substances that can potentially harm children’s health either via cancer or non-cancer effects, including 31 plasticisers, 18 flame retardants, and 8 fragrances.” In short, plastic not only pollutes the planet, the chemicals are poisonous to people, especially children.
In the report, researchers highlight “that an efficient and practical way to reduce exposure to priority chemicals present in plastic toys is to reduce the amount of new toys introduced into our households every year. This is also supported by a recent study showing that the quality of…play is negatively influence by the abundance of toys, and that fewer toys may help toddlers to focus better and play more creatively.”
As summer approaches, think about choosing sustainable and healthy options for beach play. A metal bucket and spade used for gardening will last longer than plastic sand toys and will have fewer environmental and health impacts. For a list of alternatives, read 12 Amazing Plastic-Free Toys for Summer.
Better yet, enjoy a day at the beach without toys of any kind. Build hand-formed castles and use natural materials to decorate; reimagine sea kelp as giant sea monsters; skip beach stones across the water; or simply splash in the waves. Read Study Underscores Why Fewer Toys is the Better Option.
Plastic utensils are among the top ten items found during beach cleanups, and I have found my fair share while walking at the beach. Plastic knives, forks, and spoons are not recyclable in most waste systems, because they are made from a variety of types of plastic resins, and the odd shapes make them difficult for recyclers to bale. Plastic cutlery can also jam sorting machines, and they are a common contaminant in recycling systems.
We must reduce the amount of single-use plastic items we consume in order to help mitigate the plastic pollution problem. For an eye-opening video about our ridiculous dependence on convenience, watch The Story of a Spoon, and then, join me in taking action by participating in upcoming City Council Meetings in Vista and Oceanside. Details below.
In Vista, the City Council will discuss single-use plastics on Tuesday, March 9th at 5:30pm. The discussion will probably begin around 6:00pm, but I plan to join at 5:30pm to make sure I don’t miss anything. We are grateful to Council Member Contreras for continuing the plastic waste conversation by adding it to the meeting agenda, which is linked HERE.
We are hoping that the Council will direct staff to draft a single-use plastic reduction ordinance that will phase out polystyrene (Styrofoam) food service-ware and will include language about providing straws, utensils, stirrers, etc only upon request. This phased approach will provide businesses with ample time to recover and adjust prior to implementation. However, a majority vote in favor is not a given, and your voice will make a difference.
Please submit a public comment prior to the meeting by emailing PublicComments@cityofvista.com and writing “Agenda Item D2 Single Use Plastics” in the subject line, or you can submit a comment by leaving a message at 760-643-2815. Say and spell your name and state agenda item D2 Single Use Plastics. All comments received by 2:00pm on the day of the meeting will be emailed (voicemails will be summarized) to the City Council members and will be added to the packet.
If you plan to make a public comment during the meeting, join the meeting through the Zoom link included in the AGENDA. Members of the public will not be on video but will be called upon when using the ‘Raise Hand’ option or by pressing *9, as instructed.
NEXT UP, OCEANSIDE—Mark your calendars and prepare written comments in support of Oceanside’s Marine Debris Reduction Ordinance, which will be discussed during the Zero Waste Plan Update Workshop scheduled for March 17th at 2:00pm. Please register to speak and/or submit written comments by emailing the City Clerk at CityClerk@OsideCA.org before 12:00pm on the day of the meeting. Don’t forget to include “Zero Waste Plan Update Workshop: Marine Debris Reduction Ordinance” in the subject line. The agenda with the Zoom link will be available next week; in the meantime, additional participation instructions are available HERE.
For more information, Tips for Commenting on City Council Agenda Items can be found HERE, and Single-Use Plastics Fact Sheets are available HERE.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about how you might contribute.
For centuries, hands have been used as symbols of strength, healing, and protection. In Our Hands, created with plastic debris found on beaches in North County San Diego, will not bring good fortune to anyone; however, the toy hand clappers filled with nurdles* do symbolize the power we hold in our hands to fight for solutions to the plastic pollution crisis and the collective strength we must use to overcome systemic environmental racism.
To add insult to injury, Formosa went to court in an attempt to block the public from visiting a slave burial site located on The Sunshine Project property. Formosa appealed the first ruling, but residents eventually prevailed and were allowed to hold a Juneteenth prayer ceremony on the ground where their ancestors are buried.
Most importantly, we must hold the petrochemical industry and all plastic producers to account, and we must insist that leaders at every level pass and enforce legislation to protect people and planet.
One deer species that is on the endangered species list is the Key deer. Key deer are named for the Florida Keys where they live—and swim between islands. They have rebounded from a low of 25 in the 1950s to a population estimated to be fewer than 1,000 today.
This recovery is in part due to the establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge, but threats still remain, including habitat loss and climate change. In addition, Key deer, also known as “toy deer,” are small (between 24-32 inches tall), and visitors to the area are prone to feeding them, which makes them less afraid of humans and more vulnerable to harm.
Most of the beaches in San Diego County closed at the beginning of April, and instead of my walks at the coast, I began venturing through my neighborhood to the small Main Street area of town. Every time I go out, I see gloves and masks that have been abandoned in parking lots, tossed on sidewalks, or jettisoned in gutters—and I am not alone.
People in cities across the country and around the world are witnessing the same thing. I understand that some of the items could have been dropped accidentally, but even if that’s the case, the carelessness is disheartening. As litter, the discards are disgusting. They not only create blight, they harm the environment, and when you consider that the gloves and masks could be vectors for COVID-19, it’s downright frightening.
On May 1st, face coverings became mandatory in San Diego County when “in public and within 6′ of someone that is not a household member.” Thankfully, most people had already been wearing fabric masks that can be washed and reused indefinitely, which helps keep others safe while reducing the waste caused by single-use PPE.
On the other hand, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend gloves for the general public at all, citing that they give people a false sense of security and “failing to change them often is the same thing as failing to wash your hands.” People who wear latex gloves make the mistake of leaving them on for extended periods of time and end up touching lots of things, which can spread the virus. Sadly, underpaid sanitation workers, grocery store employees, and gas station attendants are most likely the ones who will have to pick up these potential biohazards.
In addition, littered masks and gloves that go unnoticed can become environmental hazards. In fact, I frequently found gloves at the beach prior to the coronavirus crisis, and I am quite sure that it won’t be too long before even more start washing up. Out of respect for our essential workers, and for the sake of the natural environment, single-use masks and gloves must be discarded appropriately. Ultimately, we can all help keep the unsung heroes in our communities out of harms way, while also protecting our oceans and sea life.
For more about medical waste found on the beach, read my post entitled “Yuck.”
UPDATE #1: As of June 12th, I have found 348 gloves and masks on my daily walks around town. Over time, the number of gloves has decreased while masks have increased. I believe that this is due to San Diego County’s mask mandate. In addition, people have become more aware of the fact that COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets and is not easily spread through touching surfaces. In fact, the CDC states that the “transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces has not been documented.” However, recent research indicates that masks can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19. Please consider reusable fabric masks, but no matter which type you choose, please handle them carefully and dispose of them properly.
UPDATE #2: When I went back to in-person work in August 2020, my daily walks became less consistent, and even so, I have documented 1,528 pieces of PPE to date. On February 20th, I did an onramp cleanup as part of Caltrans’ Adopt-A-Highway program and found 21 gloves and masks scattered along the roadside along with lots of other litter. In addition, I have been venturing to the beach more often lately, and as expected, I have been finding masks and gloves every time I go.
IN THE NEWS—The image below has been used in several publications, including the following:
I was humbled to be featured on the Beautiful-We website, which highlights people who are having a positive impact. For Drowning in Plastic, photographer Margit Boyesen surrounded me in blue plastic debris that I have collected while cleaning North County San Diego beaches. Please follow Beautiful-We to be inspired by others who are striving to make the world a better place.
Plastics break down into smaller and smaller bits until they become microscopic, but they never completely degrade. In other words, petroleum-based plastics never go away. The term “break down” can be applied not only to plastics but to the coronavirus crisis as well. How can we leverage the break down in life as we knew it to revitalize systems while putting people and planet first—and how can we ensure that the lessons learned stay with us forever?
(The broken down pieces of plastic used to make Break Down were all found on North County San Diego beaches.)