In honor of world water day, I wanted to share what I learned in my recent week-long trip to Nicaragua. Nicaragua is a beautiful country, and everyone we met was friendly and helpful. My cousin and I stayed at a wonderful resort, Mango Rosa , located just outside of San Juan del Sur, on the Pacific coast approximately 2 hours from the Managua Airport.
On the drive from the airport to the resort, there was one thing I could not ignore: the miles and miles of trash lining the road . And while there were various types of trash along the road, it was clear that the vast majority of the trash was plastic—plastic bottles and Nicaragua’s ubiquitous pink plastic single-use bag.
The second thing I noticed after all the trash along the road was the countless number of people walking along the road and carrying a pink plastic single-use bag. Nearly everyone had one; no wonder they were scattered along the roadside.
Later in the week, I was fortunate enough to take a horseback riding trip to Playa Majagual and Playa Maderas, two of the local beaches. I was stunned by the number of plastic bottles along the dirt road leading from the beach, particularly since there were only a few houses dotted along route. In fact, in a 400-yard stretch, I counted 33 plastic bottles along the road.
As I glanced at these plastic bottles marring the otherwise-stunning landscape, they smiled back at me proudly with their American labels: Coca-Cola™, Powerade™, Sprite™…
When I tried to talk about the litter issue with some of the staff at the resort, they were quite defensive. They explained that most parts of Nicaragua do not have trash collection services and most people do not have cars. Mango Rosa was less than a mile from the local dump, where they collected and burned trash, but it was up to individuals to bring the trash to the dump. If people did not have a way to get the trash to the dump, it would often end up scattered along the side of a road, or across the countryside, or lining the beaches.
San Diego Coastkeeper has long-recognized the connection between inland trash and litter issues and marine debris issues. In fact, our last Signs of the Tide event, “The Great Trash Migration” explored this very issue while I was traveling in Nicaragua. If you missed the event, you can still see all the presentations here.
What I took away from my Nicaragua trip was that, whether we realize it or not, we as Americans set an example for the rest of the world. We’ve exported to Nicaragua our concept of a throw-away society, one where our lives are full of single-use plastic bags and bottles. But in Nicaragua’s case, they do not yet have the infrastructure—the trash collection and recycling facilities—to handle the massive volumes of plastic such a lifestyle generates. The result? Our American throw-away habits are shamefully on display along the roadsides and hillsides and beaches in Nicaragua.
On World Water Day I challenge each of us to set a better example for our neighbors. Bring your own reusable bag to the grocery store and say “No!” to single-use plastic bags. Carry your own refillable water bottle. Support Coastkeeper’s work to clean-up trash along our coast and in our waterways and to convince the City Council to stop using City funds to buy bottled water, except in emergencies. By becoming a member of San Diego Coastkeeper, you can support our work and get a free “I bottle my own” reusable water bottle. Only once we set a better example for our neighbors, can we help our neighbors to take the first step to solving their trash and marine debris problems.
At any moment, millions of individuals are migrating. Literally tons of animal mass moving from the ocean depths to the surface (zooplankton’s diel vertical migration), from the North Pole to Baja California and back (Gray whales make the longest animal migration), from Arizona to San Diego each summer (We all know about the influx of “zonies” on our local beaches). These Great Migrations pale in comparison to the daily movement of common pieces of litter from human hands to the Pacific Ocean.
Coastkeeper’s March 2011 Signs of the Tide forum focuses on this Great Trash Migration, since the larger problem of trash in the oceans is coming from inland areas. The event’s speakers come from the State Water Board to talk about storm water management of trash, EDCO Disposal to talk about where trash comes from and where it goes, and the Friends of 47th St. Canyon to talk about how community members are cleaning up trash in local canyons. San Diego City Council Member Todd Gloria will moderate the event, taking questions from the audience and guiding the conversation.
My contribution to the topic discusses San Diego Coastkeeper’s beach cleanup data and our Coastal Cleanup Day data. The information our volunteers collect at cleanups tells us a lot about what’s escaping into our environment – and where. There is a big difference in the trash problems facing beaches and those in more inland areas. For example, our beaches see higher numbers of certain single-use plastic pollutants, such as cigarette butts and small pieces of Styrofoam, while our inland cleanup sites see more of the larger items associated with illegal dumping. Either way, it all flows downstream and threatens marine life. Anything we can do on land to stop the Great Migration of trash to the ocean, from cleanups to policy change to reusable water bottles, will help our ocean environment.
At this year’s Coastal Cleanup Day, our volunteers came back with some memorable ones that I thought the blog world might enjoy:
• Car hood – Fiesta Island
• RV port-a-potty – Borderfield State Park
• Traffic ticket for an open container – Ocean Beach
• Baby’s devil costume – Tijuana River at Dairy Mart Rd
• Hello Kitty children’s piano – City Heights (a young volunteer was very excited to acquire this hand-me down)
• Antique leather football helmet and a mannequin – National City
• Newspaper stand – San Diego Bay
• Fake pair of antlers and a Norwegian passport (if anyone knows Stine Grytten Nærum, please tell her to call me) – Pacific Beach
• Model rocket fuel – Chula Vista, Salt Creek
• Bag of drugs (found by a troop of girl scouts) – Imperial Beach, South Bay Wildlife Refuge
• Christmas Tree (in September) – Lemon Grove, Bakersfield Drainage Ditch
• Model ship – Southcrest Community Park
• Styrofoam foot with a sandal on it – Vista, Buena Creek
• Refrigerator door – Otay Valley River Park
• And of course, the proverbial kitchen sink – Rolando Park, Zena Canyon
Thankfully, our site captains reported less hazardous and electronic waste than in previous years so maybe this means that the message is getting across about disposing of these materials appropriately (maybe?). While it’s sad to think of all the trash in our environment that needs collecting year after year, at least we can find the humor in the world around us and the interesting waste of us crazy humans.
It’s down to the wire. With days to go until the legislative deadline of August 31, we need to push HARD to get AB 1998 to the front of the agenda. If you haven’t already, please write AND call your senator to tell them you support Assembly Bill 1998 to rid the state of single-use plastic bags.
We all know that single-use bags are bad for our environment, but did you know that they are also bad for our California economy? Litter from single-use plastic items decreases tourist values and costs local governments and private businesses millions of dollars each year to cleanup. To stop the flow of debris from our hands to the sea, we need legislation such as AB 1998 that will affect the entire state. This bill will ban plastic single-use bags and require recycled paper bags be sold at supermarkets, retail pharmacies and convenience stores throughout California, thus pushing Californians towards the sustainable choice—REUSABLE BAGS!
Want to get more involved?
Help us get last minute supporters by forwarding this link to friends and neighbors, sending in a letter on behalf of your business or contacting Coastkeeper for more information.
California’s ocean economy is valued at $43 billion, including an estimated 408,000 jobs mostly in the tourism and recreation sectors. But plastic bags are littering our waterways and our coasts, threatening the marine environment, damaging our economy, and creating a potential hazard to human health. Join in the fight against plastic bag waste by SUPPORTING AB 1998!
Assembly Bill 1998 (AB 1998) will ban plastic single-use bags and require recycled paper bags be sold at supermarkets, retail pharmacies, and convenience stores throughout California. Passage of this legislation is a major step in breaking our addition to single-use bags and reducing the environmental and economic impacts of plastic bag pollution in inland and coastal communities.
State agencies in California spend $25 million every year to clean up plastic single-use bags that end up in our waste stream. This value doesn’t include the millions of dollars that local governments must spend in street sweeping, litter prevention and outreach programs, and cleaning up trash-impaired waterways. Our time and money can be put to better use.
We urge you to join the fight to BAN PLASTIC BAGS and reduce trash in our waterways and on our beaches!
Please sign this letter telling your California State Senator that you support AB 1998 to ban single-use plastic bags. Try to send in a letter of support on behalf of the business you work for, and show that this bill will not negatively impact our California economy. Contact Coastkeeper for more information.
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.