Playing with Plastic

Sand toy flags found on North County San Diego beaches

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.

Plastic shovel handles found on North County San Diego beaches

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.

Plastic shovel scoops found on North County San Diego beaches

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.

For an article that summarizes plastic toy risks, read Huge, Global Study of Plastic Toys Finds Over 100 Substances That May Harm Children and for the full report, visit Chemicals of Concern in Plastic Toys.

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More Than A Spoonful

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.  

Plastic cutlery found on beaches in North County San Diego

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.

Overflowing trash can at Vista’s Creek Walk

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.

Straws collected on the beach in Oceanside

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 janis@surfridersd.org if you have any questions about how you might contribute.

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In Our Hands

In Our Hands was created with plastic debris found on beaches in North County San Diego.

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.

From extraction and manufacturing to distribution and disposal, plastic has harmful effects throughout its lifecycle, and communities of color are the most severely impacted because fracking facilities, industrial plants, and waste incinerators are often located in fence-line zones.

One example of a community that has been irreparably harmed is in Tennessee where Formosa Plastics Group plans to begin construction on a $9.4 billion facility that will be one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the United States. When complete, The Sunshine Project will be about 80 football fields in size and will double the toxic pollutants emitted in a section of St. James Parish that has been referred to as Cancer Alley since the 1980s. Over time, the area has also come to be known as Death Alley, and it has most recently been dubbed Coronavirus Alley because the majority Black residents are suffering from a COVID-19 death rate that is five times higher than the national average.

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.

Nelson Mandela said “It’s in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it,” and everyone can have a hand in stopping this human and planetary catastrophe by reducing dependence on single-use items which account for 50% of all plastics produced. We can refuse plastic bags, take-out containers, take-away coffee cups, utensils, stirrers and straws, polystyrene cups and clamshells, single-use water bottles, and unnecessary plastic packaging.

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.

(*Nurdles are lentil-sized preproduction plastic pellets used to make almost all plastic products. They easily escape during manufacturing and transportation and an estimated 250,000 tons of them enter the world’s oceans annually. Formosa recently settled a $50,000,000 lawsuit for illegally dumping billions of nurdles into the Gulf of Mexico. In June, activists fighting The Sunshine Project were arrested on felony terrorizing charges for leaving a box of nurdles at the home of an oil and gas industry lobbyist.)

Learn more — Stop Formosa

Read NAACP’s — Fumes Across the Fence-line

Support — The Federal Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act

Support — California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act

Participate — Plastic Free July

Watch — The Environment Subcommittee Briefing: Plastic Production, Pollution, and Waste in the Time of Covid-19

Watch The Urgent Need to #StopFomosa below:

 

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Endangered

May 15th was Endangered Species Day, which was established 15 years ago to raise awareness about the living things that are most at risk. In the United States, over 1,300 plants, crustaceans, insects, reptiles, mammals, and others are listed as endangered. While many people think of deer as being quite common, several species are actually threatened with extinction. Unfortunately, the cervidae that I create with unmodified marine plastics found on San Diego County beaches, will exist forever in some form.

Un-endangered deer made with unaltered marine plastic found on beaches in San Diego County.

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.

There are common sense things we can do to protect Key deer and all wild animals, such as not feeding them, and even during the pandemic, we can also take action to ensure that deer made with marine plastic eventually do become extinct.

  • Use bar soap, instead of liquid soap
  • Purchase hand sanitizer for refills from a local distillery
  • Refuse plastic cutlery and other unecessary single-use plastic items when ordering take-out and/or when using restaurant delivery services
  • Sign up for a CSA produce box program through a local farm and/or shop for produce at a farmers market
  • Put groceries back in the cart after paying, and load them into your own reusable bags at the car

Please leave a reply with your suggestions for reducing single-use plastics while staying safe and healthy during the Covid-19 crisis.

Use bar soap instead of liquid soap.

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Litter in the Time of Coronavirus

Some of the gloves and masks found in and around downtown Vista between April 14 and May 1.

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.

Map of gloves found on my walking route.

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.

81 Gloves and Masks

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.”

Please read The Glove Challenge in The New Yorker to learn what others have been doing about the glove scourge, and take a look at What’s Next for Earth: Quarantine Discoveries to check out inspiring works of art created during the pandemic.

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:

Brill—The effects of COVID-19 litter on animal life (A research study)

The Nation—Byproducts of the Pandemic

CNN—Used Masks and Gloves are Showing Up on Beaches

Cambridge University Press— ‘COVID waste’ and social media as method: an archaeology of personal protective equipment and its contribution to policy

PLastic Oceans— A New Type of Ocean Pollution: Coronavirus Waste

MAHB Stanford—Litter in the Time of Coronavirus

USC Annenberg Media—How ‘Ocean Friendly’ initiatives in San Diego are combatting the rise in COVID-19 Plastic Pollution

256 Gloves and Masks
A map of my meanderings.
321 Gloves and Masks (graphed from April 14 to June 7)
An Animation

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Drowning in Plastic

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.

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Break Down

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.)

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Winter Solstice Snowflakes

Even though remote mountain tops appear pristine in scenic photos, microplastics have been found in snow samples taken from the Sierra Nevada, the Alps, and the Pyrenees—and 90% of samples collected in the Rockies contained microplastics.

There are things we can do to help alleviate the plastic pollution crisis. We can reduce our use of single-use plastic items, and we can rethink polyester clothing, which sloughs off microfibers when washed. Microfibers are actually one of the most ubiquitous micro-plastics found in snow and water samples taken around the world.

To watch an interesting video and to learn about a citizen science snow sampling project being developed by Columbia University, visit The Weather Network.

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Juul Caps

When I recently started finding these caps on the beach, I thought that they were from USB drives. However, a recent headline about the life-threatening consequences of vaping made me realize that they are caps for Juul e-cigarette products.

In addition to adding to the plastic pollution problem, e-cigarette companies like Juul are marketing to youth. Nicotine use by teens had been on the decline until the recent increase in vaping, which can lead to addiction, behavioral changes, and health problems. In fact, on August 27, the FDA released a statement about their current investigation of 215 cases of severe respiratory distress and pulmonary illness attributed to e-cigarette use.

To stop this epidemic, regulations need to be put into place, and San Francisco, home of the Juul Labs company, has done just that. It is now illegal “to sell nicotine vaporizer products in stores or for online retailers to ship the goods to San Francisco addresses.” In Beverly Hills, the City Council approved an ordinance that will “prohibit the sale of nicotine-products, including cigarettes, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes” beginning on Jan. 1, 2021.

Local ordinances are helpful, but in order to fully protect our children and our environment, California’s SB424 needs to be passed. If enacted, it will “ban filtered cigarettes, disposable plastic holders and mouthpieces, and single-use electronic cigarettes. It also calls for manufacturers to take back any non-recyclable parts of reusable e-cigarettes.”

If you are a California resident and want to support SB424, please visit Surfrider’s post that includes a quick and easy way to send a message to your elected official.

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Be Disposable Free

cutlery

Plastic cutlery is often among the top ten items found during shoreline cleanups, and I have certainly collected 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 most recycling systems.

Compostable utensils are also problematic, because in most cases, they can only be composted in a commercial composting facility, and very few of those exist in the US. The best choice is reusable cutlery.

Green Oceanside has started a Be Disposable-Free campaign, and volunteers are needed to help raise awareness about the harmful effects of single-use items, including utensils. If you are in San Diego County and are interested in supporting the effort in Oceanside, please contact ShoreSweep.

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