It’s no secret that people want to help protect the environment. San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price said there’s no other issue that can unite differing politics than the protection of it. Yet, it seems, one of the biggest secrets about the environment is the public’s education to it.
As a reporter, I was sent to cover Coastal Cleanup Day, San Diego’s largest volunteering effort to pick up trash along the beaches and watersheds throughout the county Sept. 17. I had heard of events like this one over my years growing up in San Diego, but like many, I knew nothing about the event or how much maintenance these areas actually needed, or how much trash there really was to pick up.
At the San Dieguito Lagoon wetlands restoration site in Del Mar, more than 100 volunteers came out with the intent of spending the day doing something good for the environment and getting their “yard-work fix.”
Many of the volunteers I spoke with saw this as a great opportunity to help “beautify” their neighborhood. Some of the younger volunteers like 12-year-old Anna Szymanski knew that the environment was hurting and she wanted to help give back by planting native species at the wetlands site.
Since the wetlands restoration project began in 2006, 150 acres of wetlands have been restored. The project was instated with the hopes that it would offset any impact the ocean-water cooling system of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating station in San Clemente, approximately 40 miles to the north, would have on fish populations. The station’s ocean-water cooling system pumps in ocean water through a series of pipes and uses it to cool and condense steam, which then pushes the turbines to generate electricity.
Back at the lagoon, San Dieguito Park Rangers helped educate volunteers on identifying invasive species for removal from around the trails. With only six rangers to monitor over 150 miles of trail that ranges from the mountains to the coast, volunteer efforts like this one are a tremendous help in maintaining these areas, explained Park Ranger Natalie Borchardt.
Just two hours in to the event, volunteers had already removed more than 700 pounds of green waste. In what would have taken Borchardt a week to do on her own, took volunteers no time at all to get the trails in order.
Coastal Cleanup Day may only be one day a year, but as I’ve learned since then, volunteer work is happening every weekend in nearly every ecological system in the county. The Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation, for instance, hosts volunteer trail maintenance every Saturday; they’ve also recently hosted the 6th annual Kayak Cleanup Event, which gives volunteers a rare opportunity to kayak in the Batiquitos Lagoon Preserve while picking up trash along the shoreline. They also offer visitors a chance to learn all about the lagoon and the role it plays in the environment at their nearby Nature Center.
It is a complex world that we live in and distractions abound, but if we really wanted to help protect the environment, we’d first learn all we could about it.
Tony Cagala is an assistant editor/reporter for The Coast News and The Rancho Santa Fe News. Read his full story on Coastal Cleanup Day here.
I was so thrilled when I heard the news that residents of the City of San Diego can now recycle additional plastics in the blue curbside bins that I enthusiastically volunteered to write this blog. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm quickly disintegrated into frustration as I realized much of the recycling information out there is inconsistent or incomplete. There are almost more exceptions than there are rules and answers simply lead to more questions.
Which prompts me to ask, is anyone else as confused by recycling as I am?
Have you ever stared at a disposable coffee cup and wondered whether to throw it in the blue bin or the black bin? What about plastic bottle caps and straws? Why are produce clamshells and pill bottles recyclable, but plastic utensils are not? If a coffee cup is not recyclable, why is frozen food packaging – which is also cardboard lined with plastic – recyclable? And I thought I could recycle plastic cups now, so what’s with this PLA plastic? It says “recyclable” on the cup, but it actually isn’t recyclable?
The rule of rigidity – sturdy plastics are recyclable, regardless of their resin number
Recycling is now less about the resin type (the number inside the recycling arrows) and more about the “rigidity” of the plastic. For example, both a yellow plastic zipper bag containing Trader Joe’s lemon heart cookies and a clear plastic cup show a #7 inside of the arrows meaning they are made of “mixed” or “other” plastics. Following the rigidity rule, the cup is recyclable in the curbside bins, while the bag is not. To put simply, sturdy plastics like cups, produce clamshells, to-go containers, yogurt cups and hummus containers can all be rinsed and recycled. Flimsy “film” plastic like sandwich bags, grocery bags, six-pack rings and other bag-like things should not be placed in the blue curbside bin (though you can collect and return these plastics to various locations throughout the county).
Meet our first three exceptions – cutlery, caps and straws
Plastic utensils definitely meet the rigidity test, yet they are specifically mentioned on the City’s website as non-recyclable items. Why? According to recycling specialists the answer is because of their small size. In theory cutlery is recyclable, but more than likely it will slip through the cracks in the screening process and filter out with the trash. Similarly, the small size of most plastic caps make them difficult to catch during preliminary screening – unless they are screwed back on the bottle. The same goes for plastic drinking straws. Though you could poke them back through the lid, snap the lid on the cup and then the screeners could catch them. So should you include cutlery, caps and straws in blue bin recycling and hope they get recycled? I have no idea because the answer depends on who you ask.
Plant-based plastics and PLA
Imagine you’re at the local farmers’ market enjoying a refreshing smoothie. Your disposable cup looks like plastic, has a #7 and says it’s “recyclable” and maybe even “compostable” so you slurp the last drops of your delicious drink and toss it in the blue bin. Not so fast. Before you throw that clear “plastic” cup into your recycling bin, check the bottom. If you see the letters PLA or if the cup says it’s compostable, made of corn, soy or other plants, that cup isn’t actually accepted in curbside recycling even if it says “recyclable.” So unfortunately, you have to throw it in the trash or take it to an industrial composting facility (worm bins or backyard compost piles do not get hot enough to break down these materials). An exception to this is the new Dasani PlantBottle, which is a disposable water bottle made of “up to 30% plants.” According to recycling specialists at the City of San Diego, this water bottle is actually recyclable because it is “exactly compatible” with #1 plastics.
And finally coffee cups
When I learned that PLA cups were not recyclable, my mind wandered to other types of cups and beverage containers. Sure we all know that a soda pop bottle is recyclable (and now the cap technically is as well), but what about a disposable coffee cup? The City’s website says frozen food boxes are recyclable, but isn’t a coffee cup constructed in a similar way – paper with a plastic lining? According to recycling specialists at the City of San Diego, coffee cups are intended for single use so by the time they reach the recycling center they are pretty degraded by liquid. At this point it is nearly impossible to separate the paper from the thin plastic interior lining. However, the lids are recyclable!
Save yourself the headache and skip the plastic cups and water bottles all together and invest in reusable options. In the long run, you will save money and reusing will become very convenient when put into your daily routine. Although we have these rules, we must stop consuming plastic as much and join forces to fight off plastic pollution for good.
Conclusively, I must thank the City of San Diego for accepting additional plastics in curbside recycling. We are fortunate to be living in the city where people strive to sustainability together.
In 2009, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography traveled across to North Pacific Subtropical Gyre to reseach effects of plastic pollution on sealife. During the long periods of sampling and testing, Scripps found that nearly 9 percent of fish caught during the research expedition had pieces of plastic in their stomachs. The number may seem low, but the researchers think it’s an underestimated as many fish may pass the plastic item or even die from it. They estimated that the fish in North Pacific alone ingest 12,000-24,000 tons of plastic pollution a year. However, in 2008, a group of researchers from Costa Mesa and Long Beach conducted tests in the North Pacific Central Gyre to find out that nearly 35 percent of fish ingested plastic, averaging 2.1 plastic pieces per fish. These two studies from different regions of the North Pacific Gyre reveal one fact: plastic pollution is harming marine life on a global scale.
Eighty percent of this plastic pollution comes from land-based sources, from us. The North Pacific Gyre (even though thousand miles away from us) has waste that keeps coming from our shores every day. Plastic can’t and won’t disappear. It hides “somewhere” in the middle of the ocean slowly breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. Marine life, which mistake it for food, suffers unknowingly, and thus begins the process of plastics making it into our food chain.
What does this mean for San Diego? Even though Coastkeeper, volunteers and partnering organizations conducted numerous beach cleanups over the years, we still need to make a substantial effort to stop pollution for good. It’s important to mention that beach cleanups are not just calls for volunteers to help the community, they are calls on a broader scale – to end pollution, preserve marine life, take responsibility and educate ourselves to be proactive, not just reactive. We need to learn to be responsible Earth residents and to stop ignorantly polluting our beaches, bays and rivers. Coastkeeper helps in this proactive cause by collecting data at each cleanup and translating that into a serious need for policy change when it comes to plastic pollution.
The reality is that we can’t travel to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to get all the garbage out, but we can stop the source. Remember, the era of plastic only began in late 1900s and what’s collecting in our ocean consists 90 percent of plastic.
Another way to stop pollution is to speak up to your elected officials. And convince business owners to do the same. When the #3 item counted at our cleanups is plastic foam pieces, and after the cleanup you get some food to-go in a Styrofoam container, it’s worth it to speak up to the restaurant and tell them what you see on the beach. With small acts of education, and getting business owners to care about the same issues, we will make the gradual change we want to see in the world.Can you think of anything you do every day that might be a threat to our oceans? For example, I used to buy a big plastic case of water bottle every week. But when I joined Coastkeeper and learned the real facts about plastic and its pollution, I decided to change my tactic. Being a big (clean) water drinker, I wanted to have a bottle with me all the time. So I bought a reusable water bottle and started to fill it up from big gallons I fill at the local water store. Not only did it became cheaper in the long-run, it was (and still is) also very convenient.
Surely, we all have something we can think of every day that may be a threat to the ocean. It might be something small and insignificant, but it all adds up in a good way. Start small and over the time the deeds will accumulate. Plus, don’t forget to remind your friends and family how important it is to avoid polluting, showing that you have their best interest at heart.
Let’s start making impact every day!
Now that sunny weather is paying us a visit every day, we find ourselves at the beach pretty often. But let’s not forget to care about our waters as much as we like to play in them. Start enjoying your summer responsibly!
- Start with sunscreen. By avoiding chemical-infused sunscreens on the market, you will do yourself and the ocean a favor. Green you ‘screen and get an eco-friendly brand that will protect your skin and won’t have harsh chemicals making their way into your body and our waters. I would recommend purchasing JASON or Aubrey organic brands for maximum protection and eco-friendliness.
- Organize your stuff. Before heading out, get your beach gear like towels and toys organized so you won’t lose them. San Diego Coastkeeper volunteers find toy shovels and flip-flops when conducting our cleanups. Today it might be beach stuff, but once you lose it, it’s pollution.
- Reuse and recycle. If you like to pay a visit to a beach with some beverages or food, don’t forget to bring it in reusable containers. Forget about that Styrofoam cooler and get reusable one that will last you for years to come. In the long-run, it’s a money-saver. Plus, it will stay “eco-cool” for life. Don’t forget to make sure you recycle your plastic bottles and cans, if you have them.
- Have a trash bag on hand. To avoid multiple runs to the nearest trash can on the beach, bring a brown bag for your convenience. Remember, you might unintentionally lose small items like used napkins, so be on the lookout.
- Check beach status. You need to know if your San Diego beach is safe to be at. Coastkeeper makes it easy for you with our interactive beach status map. Updated two times a day, this tool will keep you updated on water conditions at your favorite destination.
- Is your beach clean?You might be a responsible beachgoer but not everyone is. Last year, Coastkeeper and our volunteers and partner organizations collected 635,000 pounds of trash from San Diego beaches and waterways. To keep your beach healthy, join in with other ocean lovers for several beach cleanup opportunities this summer including “Morning After Mess” at OB Pier, Encinitas Moonlight Beach, South Mission Beach, Tamarack Beach and Pacific Beach cleanups.
Living in beautiful San Diego, it is vital for us to prevent pollution in our primary all-year destination. It takes responsibility and consistency, but with cumulative effort we can protect our waters from unnecessary pollutants today and in the future.