Politically savvy surfers in California fight plastic pollution

A surfer catches a wave in Malibu, where the Surfrider Foundation was launched in 1984. (Photo: JAVS, via Shutterstock)

A landmark bill designed to drastically reduce plastic pollution in California, SB 54, was signed into law on June 30. It imposes the most stringent plastic reduction rules in the United States. It has to. California, like the world, is enduring a seemingly insurmountable plastic pollution crisis. The Surfrider Foundation continues to play a key part in reducing plastic pollution by shaping policy.

Even though many single-use plastic items are labeled as recyclable, only 9% of plastics ever get recycled. The other 91% ends up littering the ocean and terrestrial landscape. The stuff is everywhere, not just the obvious plastic bottles, plastic bags, and Styrofoam cups you see littering city streets, but the small particles that plastic breaks into, known as microplastics. By some estimates, over 14 million tons of plastic ends up into the ocean each year.

    Plastic is durable, inexpensive, and versatile enough to use in innumerable products. Then it never really goes away.

Currently, an enormous swirling mass of trash called the Eastern Garbage Patch floats between the coast of California and Hawaii. It is a dizzyingly vast mess of garbage and plastic items—everything from fishing nets to consumer plastic food ware—and its extent is too large and variable to accurately measure. Together with the Western Garbage Patch, off the east coast of Japan, it comprises the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, often referred to as a trash gyre or trash vortex for the way that ocean currents distribute and hold those plastics in place. It’s the largest of five plastic gyres on Earth, and it will only keep growing.

A report by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that by 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic waste by weight than fish.

Plastic is a popular material because it’s durable, inexpensive, and versatile enough to use in innumerable commercial and industrial products. Then it never really goes away. The packages and food wares we call “disposable items” are not disposable. We dispose of them, but they really just move, not necessarily to the landfill or recycling center as we hope, but from the point of use to an endpoint that is comfortably out of the user’s purview and the producers’ responsibility. While those plastics create problems far from the places they were created and used, plastic manufacturers keep making more single-use plastic items, and we consumers keep using them—once. This why they are more accurately known as “single-use” items.

Eighty percent of ocean plastic originates from terrestrial sources, not from fishing and marine activities, and most plastic is not biodegradable. Out in the water, the sun breaks it down into debris and microplastics, in a process called photodegradation. Debris accumulates along freshwater bodies and mixes with beach sand, but microplastics are insidious, entering marine animals’ bodies and the bodies of the people who eat those animals.

Apparently, you may not even have to eat fish to ingest microplastic. In 2019, the World Wildlife Fund estimated that human beings inhale and ingest as much as five grams, or 0.17 ounces, of plastic each week. With microplastics now in water, food, and air, scientists are increasingly detecting them in human organs, including kidneys and lungs, and in both maternal and fetal placental tissues. Newly discovered bacteria could speed up plastic recycling, but ultimately, no one seems to know how to get microplastics out of the environment on this great a scale. SB54 aims to stop more of it from polluting California.

   Critics state that SB54 misses important elements of plastic pollution, by failing to ban polystyrene and doesn’t outlaw the burning of plastic during recycling.

SB54 targets the the production of single-use plastic and its recycling. By 2032, plastic producers will have to reduce the total amount of plastic they distribute in California by 25%, replacing a quarter of their plastic products—from takeout containers to cups—with alternatives such as glass, paper, or reusable containers.

To put it lightly, California’s existing recycling system is ineffective, so plastic producers will also have to make sure that their plastic packaging and food ware products are truly recyclable and reusable, by composting or recycling 65% of those plastic items by 2032. This will help create a circular economy, putting the onus on producers, rather than just consumers, to make sure these single-use items do not become more pollutants.

This responsibility is also monetary: Starting in 2027, plastic producers will have to pay $500 million a year, over 10 years, to help mitigate the enormous cost of cleaning plastic pollution. SB54 goes after both the supply and the end of the products’ lifecycle.

Critics state that SB54 misses important elements of plastic pollution, by failing to ban polystyrene, and it doesn’t outlaw the burning of plastic during the process of recycling, but it does go further than any other U.S. state has before. The Ocean Conservancy environmental group estimates that over the next decade, SB54 will prevent upwards of 23 million tons of single-use plastic items from being distributed or sold in California.

“California won’t tolerate plastic waste that’s filling our waterways and making it harder to breathe,” Gov. Newsom said in a statement. “We’re holding polluters responsible and cutting plastics at the source.”

Newsom was only one part of this bill’s passage. Organizations such as the California Coastal Commission, Oceanea, and The Ocean Conservancy have worked to curb plastic pollution in California. High among them is the Surfrider Foundation.

The Surfrider Foundation
From their name, it’s easy to imagine the Surfrider Foundation as a group whose concerns center around wave-riding and beach access, but they are one of the most influential environmental organizations in America, on par with more well-known entities like the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Foundation, based on their ability to shape public policy.

The surfers who started the organization started it to advocate for healthy oceans, clean water, and beach access.

The Surfrider Foundation has been pouring energy into national, state, and local campaigns to reduce plastic pollution since 2005.

A small group of surfers formed the Surfrider Foundation in Malibu in 1984 to protect their favorite surf spot, Surfrider Beach, from increasing local development. Surfers are subject to the health of the ocean, from raw sewage to excessive industrial pollutants, and the Surfrider Foundation was always an environmental organization. As this grassroots nonprofit started to work to protect other California surf breaks, it formed its first local chapters in 1992 in Orange County and San Diego County, eventually expanding its network around the coastal U.S. and the world. With over 500,000 members in over 90 local chapters, and a vast network of student clubs and volunteers, the original scrappy group grew into one of the world’s most respected, trusted environment nonprofits, which uses its $6 million annual revenue to get results.

Curtailing sewage outflows, helping restore surf spots, protecting wetlands, getting fines levied against polluters, securing public beach access, even getting a Northern California paper mill to switch to a fully chlorine-free production process—the Foundation quickly stacked up achievements quickly during the 1990s. The surfers who started the organization started it to advocate for healthy oceans, clean water, and beach access, but they recognized that we all are affected by the health of our marine environment, whether we surf or not.

The Surfriders target plastic pollution
The world has gotten more complicated, the ocean’s challenges more numerous. In 1984, no one had yet named the floating mess of plastic and trash “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” No one was working to eliminate petroleum-based plastic grocery bags or aware that microplastics existed. In the 1980s, the environmentalists who were concerned with plastic were largely focused on addressing the threat that plastic six-pack rings posed to the marine life that ate and got trapped in them. The big picture is bigger now.

   The Surfrider Foundation designated its own Plastic Pollution Initiative team, which includes full-time staff.

Since 2005, the Foundation has been pouring energy into national and local campaigns to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean.

Their wide-ranging work includes education and outreach programs, such as Beach Cleanups, where volunteers remove trash, by hand, from individual beaches. It includes the Ocean Friendly Restaurants, and Rise Above Plastics, designed to help the public understand the impact of our daily habits have on the marine environment and the alternatives that are available.

“In 2007, our team developed a Rise Above Plastics (RAP) mission statement,” said Jennifer Savage, Senior Manager for Surfrider’s Plastic Pollution Initiative, “which Surfrider’s Senior Legal Director, Angela Howe, helped to bring to the forefront as a primary area of focus for the organization.”

These programmatic efforts work in conjunction with policy changes.

The Surfrider Foundation designated its own Plastic Pollution Initiative team, which includes full-time staff that perform policy and program work. “Our policy experts actively engage at the federal and state levels to pass laws banning single-use plastics, incineration of plastic waste, holding plastic producers responsible for the harmful trash they create,” said Savage. “Our policy team also supports the efforts of more than 100 chapters and clubs around the country to pass local ordinances promoting environmental health over plastic production.”

In California, their plastic campaigns started passing into law in 2007 with the historic plastic bag ban in San Francisco, which made San Francisco the first American city to prohibit the distribution of petroleum-based plastic bags through large markets and pharmacies. Shortly after, local Surfrider chapters successfully helped usher in ordinances banning polystyrene foam—often branded as Styrofoam in consumer products such as disposable food ware—everywhere from Capitola to Santa Cruz, Monterey to San Clemente, and offering compostable and recyclable ware as sustainable, long-term alternatives.

The California Coastal Commission hosts Coastal Cleanup Day every year, where volunteers collect trash and data, which the Ocean Conservancy compiles into a database, broken down by the type of material found, and makes that information public. Since California passed bag ban laws, fewer plastic bags show up in clean ups, but the top 10 items they extract are all still single-use disposable plastics. Surfriders’ Beach Cleanup program not only reduces beach litter, Savage said, it also gathers data about the most common types of trash. All of them are plastic.

So far in 2022, the Surfrider Foundation’s many chapters are running a total of 163 campaigns—mostly at the national and state-level, with some regional and federal. Forty-five of those campaigns concern plastic, from efforts to stop burning plastic in New York and New Jersey, to efforts to eliminate Styrofoam food containers in Puerto Rico.

“Their commitment to showing up at city council meetings, calling their state elected officials and holding beach cleanups…” — Jennifer Savage

The Foundation’s campaigns often feature clever, memorable slogans, like their 2018 “We are the United States and Oceans of America” campaign. Built around the idea that America contains more water than land, it ran on July 4th to connect patriotism and environmentalism and show how it is all Americans’ responsibility to help keep our oceans clean.

“The first impetus to the chapters taking on the issue [with SB54] were three-fold,” Savage told me. “First, there was the 2007 San Francisco single-use plastic bag ban, which was one of Surfrider’s first plastic pollution victories. Second, there was Captain Charles Moore’s voyage to the North Pacific Gyre and discussion about what he found with Surfrider chapters, including the Long Beach Chapter, where he is still active, in addition to the efforts of Ximena Waissbluth of the Monterey Chapter who also has educated many other Surfrider chapters in California. And three, there were the efforts of the Surfrider’s San Diego County Chapter to create an education program on plastic pollution and address the issue head on, including coming up with the ‘Rise Above Plastics’ program name.”

One of the Foundation’s biggest impacts with SB54 has been the presence and persistence of its activists in building statewide changes at the local level. “Their commitment to showing up at city council meetings, calling their state elected officials and holding beach cleanups to show how much harm plastic pollution is doing to our coast has built a groundswell of awareness and local ordinances,” said Savage.

            Organizations with vested interests have consistently pushed back against plastic reduction initiatives in California.

The respect that Coastal Commission Vice Chair Caryl Hart has for the Foundation comes from working closely with them and witnessing their effectiveness. “Surfrider is the leading nonprofit working to protect California’s coast and an essential partner to the Coastal Commission,” Hart told me. “As such, their voice was absolutely essential in supporting the initiative and the ultimate outcome of a much-improved version of SB 54. I cannot speak highly enough about Surfrider’s knowledge and advocacy around plastics issue and coastal protection generally.” Hart was one of three proponents who placed the original California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction measure on the ballot, along with two co-proponents: the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Southern California Legislative Director Linda Escalante, and Michael Sangiacomo, President of the California waste management company Recology. The Surfrider’s labor helped carry the initiative to voters. “They were a leading member of the coalition,” Hart said, “and particularly key in supporting funding in the measure for coastal restoration and cleanup from the impacts of plastic pollution.” Strong coalitions are necessary.

Organizations with vested interests have consistently pushed back against plastic reduction initiatives in California, including the American Chemistry Council and the California Restaurant Association. Past bills that aimed at reducing single-use plastics like SB54 does have failed before, thanks to well-funded, vocal opposition from the petroleum industry and players in the plastic industry, such as Dow Inc. and Dart Container Corp. Although the Surfrider Foundation wanted SB54 to ban gasification, pyrolysis, and polystyrene, known as EPS, they recognize the historic potential such a comprehensive bill can have, especially ensuring that plastic producers are responsible for the waste their products generate. “The primary determiner of its effectiveness will be how well the state maintains oversight and enforcement regarding the Producer Responsibility Organization,” Savage told me.

The urgency around reducing plastic pollution seems to be resonating with voters and policymakers not just in California, but around the world. India—the world’s second most populous country, a nation of 1.4 billion people—has started eliminating single-use plastic, too. From that perspective, California is a leader. The rest of the world still needs to catch up.

But Savage says that California has a lot of important work left to do, including banning EPS, gasification, and pyrolysis, switching to reusables and refillables, and continuing to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics.

Seeing Californians’ support for SB54 suggests that the state may one day achieve those goals.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: