San Diego recently hosted the California Ocean Protection Council (COPC), a committee we haven’t seen in this region since 2005. Governor Schwarzenegger created the COPC to regulate ocean health in California, and the commissioners represent the state’s leading elected and appointed officials. As the executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, the county’s largest water quality non-profit, I was pleased to see the council include panels addressing both the desalination issue as well as the growing threats from marine trash.
The COPC included a panel discussion that will continue to elevate in importance through 2010 and beyond: marine debris and toxins in our ocean. The COPC set an objective to reduce the tonnage of debris along California’s coast by 50 percent within a 12 year period, ending in 2011. While we know this issue is staggering, scientists across the world are still gathering data to help us understand the complexity and size of the issue. We need more advanced research to comprehend how much plastic is accumulating in the open sea, at what rate and how it truly impacts the marine life.
After two years of collecting marine debris data at our cleanups, we find that plastics continue to dominate the type of debris found littering San Diego County beaches. So far this year, San Diego Coastkeeper engaged more than 12,000 volunteers to remove more than 183,000 pounds of trash at monthly cleanups and other cleanup events such as Coastal Cleanup Day, Creek to Bay and Morning after Mess. During the monthly cleanups in partnership with Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Chapter, more than 93,000 pieces of plastic and items made of plastic or Styrofoam were collected at 20 cleanups countywide.
This is only the trash we collected on the beach and doesn’t account for all the debris that floated into our oceans. Once there, bottles sink and the sun breaks plastics down into micro-sized pieces ingested by marine life and birds. This creates a problem so unseen scientists and researchers strive to measure its true impact.
COPC is just beginning to collect data from its 12-year mission to reduce debris along the state’s coastline, and I look forward to sharing with you their findings as they begin calculating them. This problem will not disappear easily; we’ll need to band together as a community to find solutions.
Marine debris in the Pacific Ocean is increasing at a startling rate! Studies of have shown that millions of birds, fish, marine mammals and other wildlife are impacted every year from ingesting or getting entangled in plastics and other debris.
It is not solely the cities and counties on the coastline that contribute to the accumulation of trash in the ocean, but also inland communities. This means actions taken by residents in neighborhoods such as Uptown, Escondido and El Cajon and throughout San Diego can impact the quality of our coastal waters. In fact, up to 80 percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources before it is blown, swept or washed out to sea.
As a North Park resident myself, I know not everyone makes the connection between our everyday choices and the health of our ocean. But the growing plague of trash in our ocean beckons us to leave a smaller footprint at our house, at work and when we’re playing.
Have you ever noticed that our neighborhoods seem clean after it rains? While the natural cycle of rainstorms brings life to our gardens, it also washes scattered debris from around the neighborhood directly into nearby creeks and streams. This is what we call urban runoff. Urban runoff from rainwater and landscape watering transports litter and toxins from our yards, driveways and streets down stormdrains and into our bays and ocean without any treatment. Yes, cigarette butts, Styrofoam containers, plastic bottle caps and other debris from inland neighborhoods end up in San Diego Bay, Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
Many residents from across the county and Coastkeeper volunteers are really making a difference. Last year in San Diego, volunteers helped remove more than 680,400 pounds of trash from our local beaches and inland waterways. That’s a lot of debris that could have found its way into the infamous Eastern Pacific Gyre, where trash from many cities is accumulating in one of the most remote places on the planet, the open ocean.
San Diego Coastkeeper’s volunteers also do water quality monitoring on surface water across the county. These local community members volunteer their time to collect monthly water samples that we assess in our lab for a variety of pollutants such as pesticides, bacteria, copper and more. Data from our regular monitoring efforts show that many creeks and streams are highly impacted by urban runoff due to urbanization. Not only is this a problem for natural habitat in our neighborhood ecosystem, but these creeks and streams empty into lagoons, bays and the ocean.
The good news is that we have many options to help improve the situation.
- Attend a cleanup in your neighborhood or along the coast.
- Plan your own neighborhood cleanup and get your supplies from us.
- Advocate for improved local policy about commonly littered items such as plastic bags, bottles and Styrofoam take-out-containers. Coastkeeper works hard to communicate the environmental and health impacts of single-use plastics, and you should too. Your phone calls and letters to your elected officials help encourage the adoption of more sustainable practices.
- Vote with your pocketbook. Patronize stores and restaurants that have eliminated wasteful single-use plastics, such as Styrofoam containers. There are plenty such places to choose from in Uptown!
- Make lifestyle changes. If each resident in Uptown used reusable shopping bags at least a couple times each week, this would save thousands of plastic and paper bags from entering our landfill. Or bring your own reusable container to restaurants for leftovers. We don’t all have to be No Impact Man, but we can all make more sustainable choices to improve our future.
- Use alternative ways of transportation such as biking and walking to take advantage of Uptown’s design as a pedestrian-oriented retail center and residential development. If we each park our car for just one day a week, we’ll collectively lessen the number of cars on the road and release less brake dust, improving the health of our oceans.
- And of course, the next time you see a piece of trash on the ground, pick it up and help stop debris before it reaches the ocean.
Small changes can make a big difference, especially if we all do this together.
Tired of seeing bags on your streets and beaches? Coastkeeper is working hard to rally support for Assembly Bill 1998, which would help Californians shift to reusable bags and reduce plastic bags making their way into our ocean. The bill passed the state assembly and is now in Senate committees. You can help by calling and also sending an email to your senator. If you are from a business that would be in support of getting rid of bags or have any questions about the bill, please contact Coastkeeper’s marine debris coordinator.