Drowning in Plastic

Gold-medal swimmer Aaron Peirsol takes on ocean pollution

AaronPeirsol-Arena-loFive-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Aaron Peirsol didn’t have to be in the water to notice pollution along the Southern California coastline. It was about eight years ago, just after a training session in Texas, he remembers, and, “I was taking a run along the beach in Newport. It was a rainy day. Not terribly cold, but overcast and wet enough. This was the first rain of the season, so I was expecting a closed beach due to a likely red tide. As I ran along the water, it was easy to see what the rain had washed out of the Santa Ana River… a brown, debris-filled surf-line” that appeared to be giving off an ominous warning to stay out of the ocean.

But Peirsol didn’t get to be a winner by avoiding risks. “There was a swell and it looked really fun,” he says. I hadn’t been to the beach in a long time, and was in need of a reunion of sorts with Mother Ocean.”

The swell was washing all kinds of things up onto the beach, from kelp to trash, and when he came upon a discarded McDonald’s dinner tray, “I thought it was too big to simply run by. I picked it up and started heading for the trash can, but the tray was perfect for a little hand plane of sorts, for bodysurfing.” Peirsol braved the brown tide and used the dinner tray to help propel him down the wave. “I had to at least smile that I was making the best of the situation,” he says.

Peirsol’s passion for the ocean goes leagues beyond repurposing trash to catch a wave. A Southern California native who retired from competitive swimming in 2011, he was struck by the magnitude of the pollution problems, as well as other issues directly related to the health of the California coast, and has dedicated much of his post-swimming career to ocean conservation. He’s worked as an ambassador with the Global Water Foundation and the Surfrider Foundation, and been a spokesman for Oceana.


The Expanding Plastic Problem

Few issues are more concerning than the growth of plastic marine pollution. Surprisingly little is actually known about it, or its impact. Why? Research did not begin until the late 1990s, and the science behind it is still emerging. Because we don’t live in the ocean, most people don’t really see the extent of the problem. “It’s a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around. It’s out of sight, out of mind for a lot of people,” says Peirsol.

In 1999, Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, was the first to study surface samples of the Great Garbage Patch within the North Pacific Gyre, located roughly midway between Hawaii and San Francisco. On his most recent expedition in 2014, Captain Moore found clear evidence that the density of plastic particles within the Great Garbage Patch has risen significantly since 2009. The problem? Plastics act like a sponge, soaking up chemicals that are ingested by fish, and in turn either killing the fish or harming their predators—humans.

Globally, 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic already exist in the ocean. A new study published in Science Magazine suggests that the volume of plastic that will enter the world’s oceans will double by 2025. These are alarming numbers, offering more evidence that we are destroying what sustains us.

surfrider_sushi-PSA-loresLocally, Heal the Bay has been doing its part for the past 30 years by organizing the annual International Coastal Cleanup Day, in addition to monthly cleanup events. “We’ve hosted more than 50 sites with 11, 200 volunteers,” said Sarah Sikich, vice president of science initiatives for the organization. “Over the course of three hours, volunteers picked up nearly 45,000 pounds of trash.” As helpful as this is for the local beaches, Sikich also notes that, “Eighty percent of the trash in the ocean comes from land-based sources. Of that, up to 90 percent can be plastic.”


Stemming the Plastic Tidebeach-trash_by_DrewSchneier-lo

So how does so much pollution from land end up in the ocean? Much of it travels through storm drain outlets that go into rivers and creeks. According to Heal the Bay, the two biggest hotspots for trash come from the mouth of the L.A. River and the mouth of Ballona Creek.

It also stands to reason that more populated areas produce more trash. Our city is one of the most highly populated areas in southern California, with approximately 4 million people—a 2.4 percent increase from 2010. There are at least 11 million of us if you include the entire L.A. Basin.

A recent National Resources Defense Council study estimates California coastal communities are spending (collectively) more than $428M a year to prevent trash from getting into our waters, including street sweeping, manual cleanup, beach cleaning and public outreach, but it’s done little to stem the brown tide.

Recycling expansion is not the best solution. Even with just 10 percent of our plastic being recycled, there’s a $100,000,000 deficit in the California Bottle Bill; it’s actually cheaper to make new plastic bottles than to recycle them. San Francisco has just banned the sale of plastic water bottles, and Los Angeles should do the same.

Styrofoam containers are the second-biggest problem—the ban against Styrofoam (EPS) extends onlystyrofoam-l0 to city and county food containers, and does not include L.A.’s thousands of restaurants and fast food locations. But single-use, or “throw-away” plastic, is the biggest culprit. Cleanup of plastic bags is particularly expensive. California spends an estimated $25 million annually to landfill discarded plastic bags, according to Beachapedia.org.

Regulations help to mitigate the problem, but our precedent-setting California state ban on single-use plastic bags is now at risk of being overturned, after the plastics industry (with its lobby power and deep pockets) successfully delayed the July 1st effective date. A final vote is set for November 2016.

“We still have a ways to go,” observes Peirsol. The stakes are much higher now than they were 20 years ago. If the problem persists without practical and economically sound solutions to reduce plastic waste, we face radical changes to our ocean and will cause irreparable harm to the ocean’s ecosystem. Mother Ocean—and we—will have very little recourse.


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This article is a part of the April/May 2015 issue of Whole Life Times.