Plastic Pollution

Each year, San Diego Coastkeeper and Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Chapter partner to host over 30 cleanups throughout the county. Thousands of volunteers who 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 found 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

We found over 70,000 cigarette butts along San Diego County's beaches in 2012, but it's not just a problem in Southern California. During Coastal Cleanup Day in 2012, volunteers around the world collected 2,117,931 cigarette butts during the single-day cleanup. Globally, they are the most dominant and commonly found trash on our shorelines.

Those little cigarette butts add 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 leach into the water when introduced to the aquatic environement.

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. In 2013, San Diego Coastkeeper started to send all cigarette butts found on beaches, where they are converted into new materials and kept out of our environment and landfills.

It's a massive problem, but fixable with a little help from everyone. (Return to top)

Plastic Pollution

Plastics contribute to 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, absorb into the food chain or eventually sink to become part of the ocean bottom.

You 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 last forever in our landfills?

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


Surfer_trash_BenKayPhoto Credit Ben Kay

Plastic foam, commonly known as Styrofoam™, endangers human health and the environment. San Diego Coastkeeper helps local restaurants reduce Styrofoam™ use.

Plastic foam debris does not biodegrade, but breaks into very small pieces that birds and marine wildlife 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. The best options are recyclable plastic or post-consumer paper.

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)

Slideshow photo credits include NOAA and Andre Lima.

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Fishable Facts

  • Kelp forests play home to more than 700 species of marine creatures.
  • Many factors including pollution, climate change, and over-fishing contribute to kelp forest decline, and their collective impact is far greater than any individual stressor.
  • Research has shown that grazing by inflated sea urchins populations damaged kelp forests and slowed recovery in the '50s to '70s off Point Loma. Sea otters, lobster, and sheephead fish are important predators, keeping urchin populations in check.
  • Many fish off California's coast are in such decline that some species will take 50-80 years to recover to healthy levels.
  • La Jolla's lush kelp forest is like a stand of underwater redwoods – it provides food and shelter for hundreds of species, from tiny invertebrates to fish, mammals and birds.
  • Since 1990, revenues from commercial fishing have declined by more than half and the number of fishing boats calling at California ports has declined by nearly three-quarters.
  • Average size across a wide range of West Coast fish is down by half from 20 years ago.
  • A 40-cm bocaccio rockfish produces an average of just over 200,000 eggs per year, whereas an 80-cm fish at double the length produces nearly 10 times as many eggs (2 million)!
  • Nearly 80 percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources.
  • Regardless of their size, plastic pollution bits are not digestible by any creature.
  • More than 60 percent of all marine debris is plastic.
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