Plastic Pollution

Each year, San Diego Coastkeeper and Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Chapter partner to host over 30 cleanups throughout the county. The thousands of volunteers who come out to clean our beaches also play an integral role in data collection to help us understand the types and distribution of debris we find. In recent years, we have found that an alarming number of small debris items dominate our tally sheets. The most prevalent, persistent and problematic are cigarette butts, polystyrene and plastics. Combined, these small and frequently-overlooked items account for 70 percent of all debris along San Diego’s shoreline. Learn more about:

Cigarette Butts

storm_drain_carries_butts_san_diegoWe found over 75,000 cigarette butts along San Diego County’s beaches in 2015, but the problem isn’t isolated to Southern California. During Coastal Cleanup Day in 2015, volunteers around the world collected 2,127,565 cigarette butts during the single-day cleanup. Both globally and locally, they are the most dominant and commonly found trash on our shorelines.

Cigarette butts may be small and easily overlooked, but all those little cigarette butts add up to a huge problem for water quality and environmental health. Cigarettes are not biodegradable, which means when they get thrown on the ground, on the beach or out the car window, they won’t disintegrate or disappear.
Cigarettes are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, which slowly breaks down, but never fully decomposes. They also contain chemicals that leech into the water when introduced to the aquatic environment.

Sick of cigarette butts on your beach?

Help us fix our marine debris problem one cigarette butt and one beach at a time by advocating for your community, joining us for any one of our beach cleanups and encouraging those who use cigarettes to dispose of them properly. You can also join a TerraCycle campaign to help up-cycle cigarette butts.

The pervasiveness and toxicity of littered cigarette butts is a massive problem, but with a little help from everyone, it’s one we can start to turn around. (Return to top)

Plastic Pollution

Plastics make up more than 60 percent of all marine debris. They pose a serious problem to our marine environment as their synthetic material makeup resists natural degradation processes.

They do not biodegrade. Plastics break down in a photodegrading process — they splinter into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually forming “plastic dust.” During this process, they release toxins that harm the ocean and wildlife and people that depend on it.

Regardless of their size, no creatures can digest plastic pollution bits. Plastics in the ocean today will, in some way, stay forever: they will break down into smaller particles, infiltrate the food chain or eventually sink to become part of the makeup of the ocean floor.

You can play a part by keeping plastic debris and other contaminants out of San Diego street gutters and storm drains. Take a moment to think about the end result for each product you buy. Can you truly dispose of “disposable” items or will they actually just last forever, out of sight in our landfills? Reducing our dependence on convenient – but ultimately unnecessary – plastics is a crucial first step in reducing plastic debris in our waters.

You can also chip in to fund our pollution prevention work, become a Coastkeeper member and volunteer at San Diego cleanups. (Return to top)



Plastic foam, commonly known as Styrofoam™, endangers human health and the environment.

Plastic foam debris does not biodegrade, but breaks into very small pieces that birds and marine wildlife regularly mistake for food. At our cleanups, these are some of the smallest debris items we encounter and one of the biggest problems.

It’s bad for humans, too. The National Toxicology Program lists Styrene, the primary component of Styrofoam™, as a carcinogen. Styrene leaches from the foam when it contacts oily, fatty foods, or when heated. Food represents a significant source of styrene exposure to the American population.

Are there alternatives to plastic foam? Restaurants have alternatives to Styrofoam™ packaging that won’t hurt the environment or your pocketbook. A wide range of biodegradable, recyclable or compostable packaging options are available, but some options are not beneficial to the environment or viable for our recycling infrastructure. Good options are recyclable plastic or post-consumer paper.  Better yet, bring your own take-home containers when you dine out.

Why make the switch?

“It takes three major components to create change: the manufacturer, the retailer and the customer. Often, the customer demands change, and it happens because the retailer and the manufacturer want to make money. But we think that it’s our job to offer products that are sustainable and positive. Right now we sell junk and spend millions on marketing to convince our customers that it’s good. Why shouldn’t we just do good in the first place?” – Kristen Buchanan, Founder /CEO of GoodOnYa deli (Return to top)