A powerful community-based movement against a major environmental and human health hazard has been moving down the state of California, up the West Coast, and around the world. If you’re a surfer or anyone who enjoys the beach or outdoors, you’re probably aware of the problem of litter on the beach and in our oceans. One of the worst offenders is the ubiquitous single-use plastic bag that many of us accept without an afterthought at the grocery store, drug store, and even the local surf shop.
Plastic bags are one of the largest contributors to ocean and coastal debris. UN estimates indicate that for every square mile of ocean, there are about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. About 70% percent of plastic debris eventually finds it’s way to the ocean floor where it will take a millennium – or longer – to degrade. On the coast of California, a large percentage also finds it’s way into undersea canyons, which act as channels for the bags to pollute deep sea habitats. Managing the problem is a huge drain on the coastal economy; according to the EPA, West Coast communities spend over 520 million dollars annually cleaning up plastics on our beaches.
Many of us have seen the heart wrenching images of sea turtles, otters, and other marine life washed up on the shore, dead to complications related to the ingestion of plastic bags. But we don’t see most plastic bag-related marine deaths, as the majority of bag-victims sink to the bottom of the ocean floor. Animals that survive immediate ingestion are slowly starving to death, their digestive tracks clogged with bags that look identical to jelly fish and other ocean food; associated nutritional deficits can cause reproductive problems in animals that survive.
As a surfer, outdoor enthusiast, and general beach lover, I was concerned about the impact of plastic bags on our beaches and wildlife. But as I began doing research for the Surfrider Rise Above Plastics Program – which seeks to reduce the impact of plastics on our communities – I was shocked at the impact that plastic bag litter is having on human health as well. As an epidemiologist whose profession is understanding population prevalence of disease, I began to see this problem as both an environmental and public health concern. Although plastic bags take a long time to fully degrade, toxic chemicals from these bags begin to leach and contaminate food almost immediately. Moreover, plastic bags can become fragmented into smaller pieces where they easily be ingested by animals in the food production industry and move up the food chain rather quickly. Many of the chemical compounds released by plastic bags are known carcinogenics that can also disrupt cell division and our immune and reproductive health.
Reusing plastic bags isn’t a very good solution since they release toxic chemicals so easily and are prone to cross-contamination, spreading bacteria between food products. Despite the fact that we use a ton of plastic bags in our daily life (the average family accumulates about 60 bags for every 4 trips to the grocery store), they are difficult to recycle, ending up in landfills and often not even making it that far: hence the problem of plastics on the beach.
The good news is that plastic bag bans have been incredibly effective at curtailing the problem. A study of the single-use bag-ban ordinance in Los Angeles, California showed usage of single-use bags declined by 94% and included a 10% drop in paper bag usage. Currently 79 bag ban ordinances have been adopted in California alone, covering 108 cities and counties. Nationwide retailers have purchased less single-use bags to distribute, reducing the amount from 107 million pounds in 2008 to 62 million in 2012, according to the Earth Policy Institute. Small changes at the local level are indeed beginning to have a huge impact.
Surfrider Foundation Newport Beach is one of the many Surfrider chapters spearheading the Rise Above Plastics Program, which seeks to address the problem of plastics in our communities. At present, their main focus is decreasing single use plastics and encouraging communities to ban single use plastic bags. To promote the Rise Above Plastics program locally, Surfrider Foundation Newport Beach will be presenting WASTE-LESS, an art show fundraiser to raise awareness and money to promote the ban on single use plastics in Newport Beach. The event celebrates the local surf and art culture of Orange County and will feature local artists who will showcase their artwork, much of it featuring found, reused, recycled and refurbished items. These beautiful pieces of art beautify our built environment and keep “waste” materials out of the landfill. 50% of proceeds from art sales of the WASTE-LESS event will be donated to Rise Above Plastics; the other 50% will go to the artist. And swanky new reusable bags will be gived to attendees. There will also be a raffle with awesome gifts (skateboards, movies, giftcards…) and 100% of raffle ticket proceeds will go the Rise Above Plastics program.