Inspiring Civic Engagement and Environmental Advocacy

A defining moment of my long career in education occurred in March 2017. I had been working with colleague Ann Zivotsky and her 5th grade class as we developed an opinion/argument writing unit on marine debris that delved into the problem and explored possible solutions. 

At the time, I was involved in the National Writing Project’s College, Career and Community Writers Program (C3WP) through the San Diego Area Writing Project. Over several weeks, I built upon the available resources to develop the unit. The project was a success; the students learned a lot, wrote compelling essays, and created convincing public service announcements. 

I was incredibly pleased with their work and wanted it to reach a broader audience. On a whim, I decided to contact an Oceanside City Council Member to inquire about the possibility of having the students share their learning during an upcoming City Council meeting. He responded immediately and enthusiastically, stating that he would place it on the agenda. 

The students worked on the presentation and practiced their parts, and when the day finally arrived, everyone was prepared—yet nervous. I had never spoken at a City Council meeting before. In fact, I had never even attended one. It was completely new for the students and their families as well. 

In spite of the newness of the experience, the students were poised presenters. They received a standing ovation and were proud of themselves for being brave enough to do something that would intimidate most adults. The article in the local newspaper provided additional validation. 

The positive feedback made me realize that ordinary citizens, even those still in elementary school, can have an impact, and I began looking for more ways to connect with elected officials. Over the next couple of years, I arranged opportunities for students to meet with Oceanside leaders and City staff members. Students also canvassed restaurants and attended community events to gather signatures in support of a single-use plastic reduction ordinance. 

Meeting with Councilmember Sanchez (5/2/2019)
Volunteering with City Staff (9/22/2019)

Unfortunately, the pandemic interrupted our outreach, but in April of 2023, Ann asked me if I wanted to revisit the marine debris unit with her current students, and I was eager to join her. To kick off the unit, I visited the class and presented my beach-found plastic Making to Make a Difference art activity as a way to engage students before Ann dove deeper into the topic.

Using a text set that included everything from videos and articles to infographics and fact sheets, students read, watched, and analyzed and used a note taking organizer to capture key points. The text set highlighted the long-time favorite Trash Talk video series produced by NOAA. The accompanying Trash Talk transcipts were helpful as students processed the information and reflected upon the content of the videos. (See Plastic Pollution Teaching Resources for more resources.)

In addition to learning about the causes and impacts of marine debris, students read articles and watched videos about solutions, including innovative ideas such as the Ocean Cleanup Project created by Boyan Slat and a contraption used to clean the Baltimore Harbor called Mr. Trash Wheel.

Based on everything they learned, students wrote claims about the best way to solve the marine debris problem. The Developing a Claim graphic organizer helped them refine their ideas, which ranged from beach cleanups and littering prevention to a reduction in single-use plastic items such as water bottles and carryout bags. 

After students had finalized their claims, they began drafting their essays. For inspiring their leads, we shared models written by students in 2016 and provided an organizer to help the current 5th graders think about what they might want to include.

We then helped them pull evidence from the variety of texts they had explored and asked them to complete a graphic organizer to scaffold how to cite an expert. In addition, we provided sentence stems for those needing additional support as they decided upon the evidence they wanted to include.

We also challenged students to add counterarguments of sorts, by having them think about what those who don’t care about the problem might say or do. Again, mentor texts and sentence stems were helpful because this wasn’t something the 5th graders had been asked to do before. 

For their conclusions, students circled back to their introductions and considered how the coastline could be transformed, if everyone acted upon the solution that was suggested in their claim.

In spite of the perceived “learning gaps” that some people focus on when discussing the pandemic’s impacts on education, we had high expectations, and the students proved us right. Their heartfelt writing met—and even exceeded—our expectations!

Then, somewhat by coincidence, the marine debris prevention conversation was returning to the Oceanside City Council just as students were completing their final drafts. I offered the class the opportunity to speak, and seven decided to participate. They formed two groups, and collaborated on their comments using information that they had learned over the previous few weeks. The students were understandably nervous, but when it was their turn, they approached the podium and spoke assuredly.

Speaking at the Oceanside City Council meeting

I was thrilled that the City Council voted unanimously to move forward with an ordinance that evening, but I was even happier that the students had the opportunity to be a part of making change happen. The class was even mentioned in a Coast News article entitled Oceanside bans Styrofoam containers.

If all this wasn’t enough, Ann and I decided to have students create public service announcements as a culminating activity. Some students worked individually while others collaborated with partners to create storyboards before selecting photos, recording voice overs, and adding music. Their learning was distilled down into impactful 30 – 60 minute videos. 

Marine Debris PSAs

A draft Marine Debris Reduction Ordinance will come before the Oceanside City Council in August, and even though these 5th graders will have headed off to middle school by then, I am hoping that some of them will want to continue participating. With young advocates speaking on behalf of the environment, the Council will surely be compelled to give final approval to an ordinance that will reduce the impacts of plastic pollution on our local beaches and beyond.

Listen as one of the students reflects on her City Council experience:

Reflecting on the City Council experience

For more information and/or additional teaching resources, please contact me using the form below.

Posted in Art, Education, Marine debris, Single-use Plastics Policies | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Skull and Crossbones

During the Middle Ages, the skull and crossbones symbol represented death and was often placed on grave markers. In the 18th century “Jolly Roger” flags were flown on pirate ships during an attack and/or as a warning of an impending attack.

Around 1850, the image became a warning label for poisons, and skull and crossbones symbols are still used today to identify hazardous substances and chemicals.

The skull and crossbones sand toy found on the beach symbolizes the toxicity of plastics caused by chemical additives that have been associated with serious health impacts.

Skull and crossbones sand toy found on the beach in North County San Diego.

The following concerns about EDCs (endocrine-disrupting chemicals) have been outlined by the Endocrine Society

  • “EDCs are significant contributors to environmentally related diseases, and plastics are a pervasive and widespread source of exposure.”
  • “Many common plastics contain and leach hazardous chemicals, including EDCs, that are harmful to human health. These chemicals disturb the body’s hormone systems and can cause cancer, diabetes, reproductive disorders, neurological impairments of developing fetuses and children, and death.”
  • “Conservative estimates point to more than a thousand manufactured chemicals in use today that are EDCs.”
  • “As plastic production increases, rates of acute and chronic diseases and deaths resulting from exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastics are anticipated to rise.”

To learn how you can reduce exposure, visit the Endocrine Society’s What You Can Do about EDCs page. In addition, the Mindaroo Foundation developed a Toxic Chemicals in Plastics chart that uses the skull and crossbones as a toxicity warning for plastics 1, 3, 6, and 7.

Graphic by the Mindaloo Society

For more on plastics and health, visit the links below: 

Endocrine Society—Plastics, EDCs & Health: Authoritative Guide

Center for International Environmental Law: Plastic and Health: The Hidden Cost of a Plastic Planet

Plastic Health Coalition: Does Plastic Make Us Sick?

Mindaroo Foundation: Plastics and Human Health

Related Instagram posts:

Posted in Marine debris, Plastic debris, Sand toys, Single-use Plastics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Carlsbad, San Marcos, and Vista Take Action; Escondido and Oceanside Lag Behind

A group of North County residents and I first spoke to the Carlsbad City Council about the plastic pollution problem during a Council meeting in February 2019. That evening, Council Members voted unanimously to place single-use plastics on the legislative platform. We subsequently began working with Council Member Priya Bhat-Patel to move a single-use plastic (SUP) reduction ordinance forward.

Meeting with Council Member Bhat-Patel in January 2020

To raise awareness among the business community, Bhat-Patel hosted a sustainability fair at Legoland. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit a couple of months later and progress in Carlsbad and all of North County San Diego came to an abrupt standstill. However, in spite of the temporary set back, we continued to work together.

In June 2020, Council Member Bhat-Patel and Representative Mike Levin among others were virtual panelists for a local screening of “The Story of Plastic” hosted on Zoom by a coalition of environmental organizations, including Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego Chapter.

As state-level COVID-19 restrictions finally started to loosen last summer, the Vista City Council unanimously adopted a single-use plastic ordinance championed by Council Member Corinna Contreras who had previously invited Brady Bradshaw (from Oceana) and me (as a resident of Vista and representative of Surfrider’s Rise Above Plastics committee) to do a presentation for the Council.

Presentation for the Vista City Council in January 2021

In June 2021, Vista became the first inland city in San Diego County to enact a SUP ordinance, which included a phase-out of polystyrene serviceware (StyrofoamTM) along with a “Skip the Stuff” component, requiring that straws, stirrers, utensils, etc. be provided only upon request.

Then in October 2021, the San Marcos City Council also voted unanimously to adopt single-use plastic reduction measures, including a polystyrene ban and upon request provisions. Prior to adoption, Council Member Randy Walton, who initiated the conversation about plastic reduction measures and was a strong supporter of the ordinance, collaborated with Surfrider San Diego to conduct a city-wide cleanup, during which over 700 pounds of litter was collected from city streets. San Marcos has since partnered with the Vallecitos Water District to install water refill stations at local parks.

Ordinance discussions began moving forward again in Carlsbad when staff introduced the Sustainable Materials Implementation Plan, which was adopted in December 2021. Then in April, Carlsbad Council Members voted in favor of a comprehensive single-use plastic food-ware reduction ordinance, and on May 10th, they unanimously approved single-use plastic bottle and bag ordinances and also voted to ban the intentional release of all lighter-than air balloons. Carlsbad’s new suite of SUP ordinances are among the strongest in the County and should serve as models for other jurisdictions to follow.

Celebrating the passage of ordinances
in Carlsbad on May 10th.

So now, even as I take a moment to celebrate the recent victories in Vista, San Marcos, and Carlsbad, I am focused on the two remaining cities in North County San Diego County along the 78 corridor that have not enacted ordinances.

Unfortunately, Escondido has yet to seriously consider a plastic reduction policy. In fact, Council Member Mike Morasco of Escondido does not believe the city should prioritize plastic pollution or climate change mitigation measures, stating “These are personal choices by individuals … People are sick and tired of government micromanaging their lives … We don’t have to do anything here. We have to teach; we have to educate … but don’t even think about mandating that people are forced to live a lifestyle based upon what someone else thinks is best for them.” He added, “I feel bad for the youth who’ve been indoctrinated to feel their lives are in peril. I don’t look at it as if the sky is falling.” 

In spite of Morasco’s comments, Escondido Mayor Paul MacNamara continues to seek a path forward and has actively supported businesses, like Burger Bench, that are striving to reduce the unnecessary distribution of single-use plastics and have joined Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants program. Most recently, MacNamara directed staff to provide an overview of ordinances adopted by neighboring cities. To that end, Escondido staff developed a matrix that outlines policies in San Diego County. I am hopeful that the Mayor’s request for this information might finally lead to a productive discussion about common sense measures to reduce single-use plastics in Escondido.

Hidden Gems of Escondido with Mayor MacNamara featuring the Ocean Friendly to Go Program

Unfortunately, like Morasco, the majority of Council Members in Oceanside have shirked the City’s responsibility to act on SUP. While a headline from August 2021 states, Oceanside Comes Down Hard on Plastic, the Council actually did no such thing.

Oceanside’s leaders opted for a Marine Debris Reduction Resolution rather than the ordinance that was presented by staff, and even though they ultimately decided to move forward with a “skip the stuff” policy, requiring that accessory-ware be provided only upon request, it was pulled from the agenda because a similar state law passed in the interim. (AB 1276, the statewide “skip the stuff” law for California, goes into effect on June 1, 2022).

Oceanside’s Mayor Pro Tem Ryan Keim acknowledges that plastic pollution is a problem, stating “You travel across the country or across the world to these remote places and you find a foot deep of plastic bottles, If we can start in our own backyard that would be great.”

But Oceanside still hasn’t gotten serious about cleaning up its backyard while neighboring jurisdictions are being good stewards of their communities.

Oceanside’s procrastination is all the more frustrating because it comes after years of community advocacy and widespread support. In fact 95% of who those who completed the City’s Green Oceanside survey responded affirmatively to “Do you think single-use plastic should be reduced?”

Current Council Members have all but ignored this input from residents dating back five years to March 2017, when students from Del Rio Elementary School did a presentation for the Council on the environmental and economic impacts of marine debris. Other awareness raising events have included a screening of Straws the Movie held at the Hill Street Country Club gallery on Coast Highway in August 2018.

In addition, residents and students have spoken during City Council meetings multiple times over the years to advocate for a single-use plastics reduction policies, but until the majority of Oceanside Council Members acknowledge that local decisions regarding the environment can and do make a difference, nothing will change.

So even as we recognize and celebrate unanimous support in Vista, San Marcos, and Carlsbad, I am disappointed by the inaction in Oceanside and Escondido. How much longer can both majorities continue to ignore the fact that neighboring city councils have united to protect our “backyards” in order to ensure a clean and healthy planet for future generations?

Posted in Education, Marine debris, Plastic debris, Single-use Plastics, Single-use Plastics Policies, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leading with Climate Justice

During a recent Portrait of a Graduate Student Summit held in Oceanside, young people were asked what skills they thought would be needed in the future. One high school senior replied, “I need to know how to live in a burning world.” Sadly, that theme was echoed many times throughout the day. The environmental concerns expressed saddened me for obvious reasons, one of which is that eco-anxiety is real and none feel it more than the students of today whose futures will undoubtedly be affected. 

As an educator and environmentalist who has been working to raise awareness and take action to address the plastic pollution problem, I have conducted many presentations for school groups (Making to Make a Difference) and organizations such as the North County Climate Change Alliance (Climate Connections: Impacts and Solutions). Bringing the topic forward through art with a focus on hope and empowerment continues to be a highlight of my career.

Over time, I have become even more deeply involved in climate change education efforts. In fact, I participated in a year-long Climate Champions project developed through partnerships with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Birch Aquarium, UC San Diego, CREATE (The Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment & Teaching Excellence) at UC San Diego, and the San Diego County Office of Education. As part of the ocean impacts teacher-leader team, I developed a unit on Sea Level Rise, which includes lessons and videos from NASA along with ideas for teaching argument writing through an environmental justice lens using resources from the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP).

More recently, I have been involved in an environmental education endeavor through the California Writing Project (CWP) and have also co-coordinated the San Diego Area Writing Project’s (SDAWP) Advanced Institute on Environmental Literacy and Justice. Committing to teach climate change presents challenges, but I am lucky to have Writing Project colleagues with whom I can collaborate.

Ann Zivotsky is one of those colleagues. She is a fifth grade teacher who participated in the Advanced Institute and decided to tackle climate change head-on in her classroom (read her blog post here.) Because we work in the same school district, I was able to co-teach with her to introduce her 5th graders to “climate warriors” who are directly impacted by climate change and are taking action to make a difference in their communities and beyond. The experiences of these youth activists became the material for the development of leads and conclusions for climate change opinion essays focused on solutions. 

I began by showing Ann’s class several short videos produced by Unicef that highlight activists from around the world. The school where Ann teaches has a diverse student population, and the 5th graders were quite interested in learning about change makers from different places. They especially enjoyed hearing from the young women from the Philippines and Mexico, and because Del Rio is located in an area of town that also has a relatively large community of Pacific Islanders, they appreciated learning about Brianna Fruen from Samoa. Sharing the stories of diverse climate warriors allowed us to introduce students to issues of environmental justice while providing role models in whom the students could see themselves reflected. 

We are not victims, we are warriors

As the fifth graders viewed the videos, we asked them to complete a graphic organizer to capture details about the climate warriors. Along with each of the activist’s names and countries, the class noted the climate impacts, experiences, and actions taken. It is essential to balance the reality of the impacts with positive examples of advocacy in order to assure students that even though climate change has harmful consequences, people can and are making a difference.

Completed graphic organizer

After watching the videos, we asked students to put themselves in the place of someone who experienced severe weather or other climate change related event. For example, we encouraged the class to think about what they might see, hear and feel during a storm. They were then asked to write from that point of view in order to develop essay leads that would engage readers. The example below is powerful.

Student essay lead

In their full essays, students went on to both define climate change and offer solutions. When writing their conclusions, we asked them to circle back to their leads in order to remind readers why their solutions could make a difference for someone living in a place that has already been affected by climate change. 

The entirety of the climate change lessons that Ann (and I) taught accomplished several things. Students became more knowledgeable about climate change, and they learned some simple things anyone can do to reduce their carbon footprint. They also became familiar with people who are making a difference while discovering that they too can make a difference. Finally, they developed reading, critical thinking, and writing skills, proving that climate change and environmental justice should be expanded beyond science curriculum and classrooms.

I will leave you with a video of Ann’s students talking about climate change. The video concludes with one student’s request that we “at least try.” Our lessons may not be perfect; we might not always know the answers to questions or the exact right thing to say when talking about climate change with students, but for these fifth graders, and all the other young people who are concerned about knowing how to live in a burning world, we, as educators, must try. 

Video: Kids Talk About Climate Change

Image from “Kids Talk About Climate Change video


Leading with Climate Justice (5 minute overview video for teachers)

Leading with Climate Justice (conference presentation slides)

Climate Warriors for Environmental Justice (lesson slides)

Climate Warriors (video links)

Student art from the Graffiti Wall created during the Student Summit
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Making to Make a Difference

I was part of virtual environmental literacy conversation this morning through the California Writing Project and left the meeting feeling inspired by colleagues from across the state who are engaging students in meaningful climate change discussions. As I was thinking through my next steps, I decided to revisit my old posts like Making to Make a Difference below. Pandemic restrictions have limited much of the hands-on plastic pollution education work I enjoy, but I am looking forward to new opportunities as in-person activities resume, and the following reminds me of why providing opportunities for young people to create and write is at the forefront of my work as an educator, artist, and activist.


July 30, 2016

As I set out my containers filled with colorful beach plastic in preparation for the activity I had planned for the 3rd through 8th graders attending San Diego Area Writing Project’s Young Writers’ Camp in Cardiff, I stopped and noticed how beautiful it looked and reflected on the incongruity of the marine debris lined up in an elementary school corridor that would soon be filled with eager summer campers.

Marine debris collected from the beach in Carlsbad, CA

As the kids arrived, they noticed the colorful plastics and had questions before they even settled in. I introduced myself and shared what I do to make a difference as a teacher, avid beach cleaner, photographer, writer, and maker. I showed examples of my work and asked everyone to theorize about how some of the items could have ended up on the beach.

We discussed balloon bits, bucket handles, and bottle caps, and the wide-eyed campers expressed amazement while sharing their insights and observations. They were excited when they found something they recognized, and they even identified an object on my All Caps piece for me. “It’s a water gun plug!” one of the campers exclaimed, and I was grateful to finally know. (I find them often but couldn’t figure out what they were.)

All Caps

After I showed them my Instagram account and my blog, I shared the work of my sister and her husband, Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang who are renowned beach plastic artists—and my inspiration. I shared their plastic arrays arranged by hue and included an image from their  Plastic Forever blog to highlight the point that making art and writing go hand-in-hand.

Chroma by Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang

From there, we segued into a deeper discussion about marine debris, and I played a video from Ocean Today’s Trash Talk series to enhance their understanding. Living in coastal San Diego, most were already aware of the problem of ocean pollution, and by a show of hands, a few had participated in beach clean-up events in the past. In addition, many have attended environmental assemblies at their schools where they may have seen the iconic image of a decomposing albatross with a stomach full of plastic or the picture of the turtle whose shell became deformed as it grew into the plastic six-pack ring wrapped around its middle.

Those images are shocking and cause one to think about the damage we are doing to the planet and its inhabitants, but research has shown that scare tactics aren’t the best way to inspire people to effect positive change . In an Environment360 interview about his book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, psychologist Per Espen Stoknes explains: “What we know from psychological studies is that if you overuse fear-inducing imagery, what you get is fear and guilt in people, and this makes people more passive, which counteracts engagement.”

Knowing that scary images aren’t effective in motivating people, I want to engage students by sharing poignantly beautiful photographs and objects that draw them in and allow them to develop connections.

Balloon bits picked up off the beach in Carlsbad, CA.

By providing opportunities for students to talk about, work with, and write about the plastic debris, their connections grow even deeper. As their interest and insight develops, I am confident that they will find their own ways to make a difference based on hope—not fear. (I discuss how I remain hopeful while cleaning the beach in my blog post entitled What Is Hope? )

My ultimate goal is it to have an even greater positive impact by empowering young people to use their creativity to inform and inspire others. I want them to know that their classroom teachers aren’t the only people who are educators. They too can teach through their words and actions and through what they create and share with a wider audience.


To lead campers into writing and making, I shared examples from Young Writers and Photography Camp that I co-taught earlier in the summer. (A 25-minute center activity that I did with campers during that program was the seed that grew into this more fully developed presentation.)

trash is

After we discussed the endless possibilities for writing, I demonstrated the hands-on work they would be doing. I dumped a tub of plastic out on the floor and explained the connection between writing and making by sharing that just as one might revise a piece of writing one can revise a piece of art that’s in process too. Objects in a collage and words/phrases/sentences on a page can be added, deleted, and moved around as the artist/author develops and works to improves the piece.

Finally, campers headed outside and began arranging the plastic into pleasing compositions that they captured with the devices/cameras they brought from home. It probably goes without saying that they had fun working in pairs to lay out their designs.

They also enjoyed discussing the pieces of plastic as they placed them on their work surfaces. I heard exclamations of excitement as familiar objects were recognized, and I overheard a pair seriously negotiating the placement of a bottle cap. Someone held up a black cone-shaped object and was surprised by my explanation that it was an eel trap.

The eel trap is the cone-shaped object on the right-hand side of this image.

As they made their arrangements, I couldn’t help but think about the significance of their interactions with the material. The eye-catching plastic, as beautiful as it is, represents humanity’s failure to protect our natural resources; it exists in contrast to the fresh-faced innocence of the children who were creating with it—the embodiment of hope for a future in which we can and must do better.

Their final products were beautiful, intriguing…and fun! One of the creators of the “pink beach boy” and I discussed the fact that the image was both cool and not cool at the same time.  We laughed as we came to that realization, which reminded me that humor is another positive way to engage an audience when tackling difficult topics.


After campers finished collaborating on their designs, they grabbed their notebooks and began to write. Some drafted poems, while others crafted letters and stories. A couple of campers asked if they could write comic strips, and I exclaimed, ” Yes! A comic strip about marine debris. What a great idea!”

The trashy times

One of the campers in the 5th/6th group drafted a story about the life of one water bottle that eventually ends up in the recycling bin after going on quite an adventure, and an older camper in the 7th/8th grade group began working on a powerful piece about the urban jungle.

water bottle
Urban Jungle

Two girls in the 3rd/4th grade group who worked together to create their plastic collages wrote very different pieces. While one wrote a letter to the “government,”the other developed a poem:

Sea turtles and sharks
Dolphins and whales
Clams and mussels
Jellyfish and sea snails
Their lives are endangered by marine debris
and humans need to find a solution
So I am asking you please
When you go to the beach
Pick up some trash
So the creatures of the sea
Can live happy lives in peace


We had a few minutes for sharing in author’s chair before I left the campers with some final thoughts on making to make a difference. I explained that not everyone is as passionate about marine debris and cleaning beaches as I am. I challenged them to discover what that they care deeply about and encouraged them to find ways to inform and inspire others through their own making and writing.

Before I had to say good-bye, I asked the campers two final questions, and I pose the same two questions to you: What do you care about? What will you do (or make) to make a difference?

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Into the Current

Into the Current highlights the plastic pollution problem by showcasing photographs, 3-D objects, and sculptures created with plastic debris found on North County San Diego beaches. The installation is on display at the Hill Street Country Club gallery at 530 South Coast Highway (Oceanside) in the Linksoul building through October 16, 2021. Schedule a viewing appointment, check the events calendar, and/or email Janis at for additional information about Into the Current.


As I walk along the beach in North County San Diego, I collect plastic debris that has washed up with the waves, was swept out with the run-off, or was left behind by beach-goers. Many aspects of modern culture are represented in the detritus: single-use straws, utensils, water bottles, bottle caps, grocery bags, balloons, toys, food wrappers, and much more are curated by the tides.

Each time I clean the beach, I notice the contrast between the man-made refuse and the beauty of the shore, the crashing waves, and the ever-changing sky out toward the horizon. I enjoy the challenge of making something out-of-place look visually pleasing as I seek to tell the story of our polluted planet. 

Into the Current references the ocean currents and the current health of the ocean. It also alludes to the current issue of environmental racism related to plastics, and the extraction, manufacturing, and waste disposal processes that impact the health and well-being of people living near facilities that emit pollutants. Finally, Into the Current speaks to the current lack of meaningful action on the part of corporations and political leaders at all levels. 

In spite of the current realities and despite the amount of plastic I find washed up on local beaches, I don’t get discouraged. Instead, I find hope in the inspiration provided by others. My hope comes from knowing that I am part of a world-wide community of activists who care about the environment and are taking action to protect both people and the planet.

Visit for information about local, state, and federal campaigns and/or contact Janis directly at to find out how you can help.

Drowning in Plastic

Drowning in Plastic: Created in Collaboration with Margit Boyesen for Beautiful-We.

Garbage Patches

Garbage Patches represents the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific along with the other concentrations of marine debris, which are located in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. Debris gathers in these five ocean zones due to surface winds and circular currents that act like giant whirlpools in which plastic detritus becomes trapped. 8 billion tons of plastic enters the ocean annually, and 80% of it is from land-based sources. If we don’t act now, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight.

Alphabet Soup

Alphabet Soup is a compilation of letter-shaped plastic items found on North County San Diego beaches. The title references the fact that the concentration of plastics in the garbage patches are not islands of large pieces of floating debris. Rather, the accumulated plastics are more like a soup of swirling microplastics, some of which are so small they aren’t even visible. In fact, it’s possible to sail through one of the garbage patches and see very little plastic, but it’s there, floating on the surface and swirling throughout the water column. 


When released, helium-filled balloons will eventually burst or deflate and will descend to Earth as harmful debris. Latex balloons often fragment into pieces that resemble sea anemones, and as ocean pollution, both latex and mylar balloons can harm shorebirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. 

Fortunately, there are innumerable ways to replace helium-filled balloons with other fun options. Try making prayer flags out of scrap fabric or decorate with recycled paper flowers—and if balloons are a must, air-filled stick balloons are a safer option because they won’t float away if accidentally released. For more information, including additional ideas for balloon-free celebrations, please visit, and to find out how you can support the San Diego County balloon campaign, email

Calamity Clown

A calamity is a disaster “marked by great harm and lasting distress and suffering.” Calamity Clown represents the harmful impact that plastic pollution has on the environment and the distress and suffering it causes people living in fence-line zones near facilities that emit pollutants. 

Calamity Clown also signifies the urgency of the problem and the fact that there is no time for clowning around. Individuals can help stop the plastic pollution calamity by refusing single-use items such as plastic bags, water bottles, straws, stirrers, utensils, and take-away cups and containers.

All Caps

Billions of plastic drink bottles are sold every day around the world, and all too often the bottle caps end up as litter only to get swept into a storm drain where they can be carried to the ocean when it rains. In fact, bottle caps are the third most commonly found item on International Coastal Clean-Up Day. How can you ensure that your next bottle cap doesn’t end up polluting the ocean?

Shovel Stars

There are close to 2,000 species of sea stars (starfish) living in the ocean. Most have five arms, but there are sea stars with as many as forty arms. Plastic sand shovels are also ubiquitous. Everyone enjoys watching children as they play in the sand at the beach, but when broken beach toys are left behind, they become plastic pollution. 


Letterpress trays were once used to store moveable letters for typesetting. This Litterpress displays pieces of marine debris that were found on beaches in North County San Diego. Some of the items are recognizable as the objects they once were, and others are unidentifiable. Look closely at each block. Can you find the contact lens case, cigar tip, snack pack cheese spreader, Lego wig, or tooth flosser? What else can you identify?


To unmask something is to expose the hidden truth about it, and Unmasked reveals truths about plastic pollution. The marine plastic used to create Unmasked was cleaned up off of North County San Diego beaches, evidence that the problem is pervasive. What can you do to raise awareness and unmask truths about the harmful impacts of unnecessary plastics? 

Love Getting Lost With You

Cairns (stacked stones) are often used to mark wilderness trails as a way to help hikers navigate. Stacking beach stones can be considered a meditative practice, which can also help people stay on the right path. Have we lost our way when the convenience of single-use plastics is valued over protecting the environment? Have we gone astray when we don’t consider the people whose health and well-being  are impacted by the pollution that our convenience creates?                                                                      


Prehistoric people created petroglyphs by carving or incising into rock. According to scholars, the etchings were created for a variety of reasons, many of which are not well understood today. Even though our understanding is limited, petroglyphs remain “powerful cultural symbols that reflect the complex societies and religions of the surrounding tribes.” These petrol-glyphs were created by arranging petroleum-based marine debris on a background of plastic detritus. How will the scholars of the future interpret the single-use symbols that we will leave behind? What story will our discarded plastics tell about our daily lives and modern culture?

Flotsam Army

Toy soldiers are prized finds by beach cleaners around the world so much so that there is a popular #flotsamarmy hashtag. Flotsam Army is a reminder that we must fight for the health of the planet. In fact, Veterans for Peace has developed a Climate Crisis steering committee that focuses on the following areas: “The unequal burden of both climate change and militarism on people of color and the poor; The carbon footprint of the US military, which is larger than that of many countries; How wars for oil and other resources support the fossil fuel-based status quo.”

Sad Ball and Angry Bird

Sad Ball is one of the first photos I ever took of something unnatural that I found on the shoreline. It represents the beginning of my journey. My sister and her husband are my inspiration. They are artists who started using beach plastic in their work over 20 years ago. When they first told me about the problem, I wasn’t seeing it on my beach walks here in North County, but about 8 years ago that changed, and I began finding more and more debris on our beaches. I started documenting the things I was finding by taking photographs in situ, and I began posting images like these to social media as a way to raise awareness about plastic pollution. Sad Ball and Angry Bird speak to the range of emotions one feels when facing the problem. 

First World

People in the United States often place the blame for plastic pollution on developing countries. However, a study conducted by oceanographer Dr. Kara Lavender Law found that the U.S. generates “the largest amount of plastic trash in the world, disposing of nearly 92.6 billion pounds of plastic in a single year. Using the most recent available data from 2016, researchers determined that the U.S. produces six to eight times more plastic waste per person than its counterparts in China and India, respectively.”

Law explained that “For years, so much of the plastic we have put into the blue bin has been exported for recycling to countries that struggle to manage their own waste, let alone the vast amounts delivered from the United States. And when you consider how much of our plastic waste isn’t actually recyclable because it is low-value, contaminated, or difficult to process, it’s not surprising that a lot of it ends up polluting the environment.”

Deer in the Headlights

A deer will freeze in the road when encountering a car at night because the headlights are blinding. Research has shown that when inundated with frightening news about the environment, people react much like deer caught in the headlights. The overwhelming fear can be emotionally paralyzing and may cause some to experience inertia or apathy, but we must unfreeze ourselves and “turn our fears into motivated action to save our planet.”

Hill Street Country Club Gallery

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Plastic Plankton

Plastic Plankton was created with unaltered plastic debris found on North County beaches.

According to a study conducted in 2020, the prevalence of microplastics in the ocean has been significantly underestimated, and the number is at least double previous estimates. Professor Pennie Lundeque, who led the research, stated that “…microplastic concentrations could exceed 3,700 particles per cubic meter—that’s far more than the number of zooplankton you would find.”

Unfortunately, zooplankton ingest microplastics, and that’s one way that plastic enters the food web, moves up the food chain, and ends up on our plates, but the overall impacts are even more complex. Plankton are an essential part of the ocean’s carbon sink because they transport carbon dioxide to the seafloor where the carbon is then sequestered in sediments. Consequently, impacts to zooplankton may reduce the capacity of the ocean to absorb carbon and help “regulate global climate.”

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.)

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I hate to burst your balloon, but…

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 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, and to find out how you can support the San Diego County campaign, email

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Service for Six

I have picked up more than my fair share of plastic forks and spoons while cleaning the beach. In fact, I recently collected an assortment of eleven plastic utensils during one walk along the shoreline. Nevertheless, I was surprised by a recent headline in The Guardian: “Takeaway food and drink litter dominates ocean plastic, study shows.”

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,…” 

A Spoonful of Barnacles

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. 

A Fork in the Sand

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

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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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