The Ocean Lovers Club strives to make a small impact in a big way on the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans.
For the dedicated members of the Ocean Lovers Club at UC San Diego, Saturday mornings are for beach clean-up. They dot the sand around La Jolla Shores, reusable canvas bags and gloves in hand. They bend to pick up stray bottle caps and scoop up the endless, tiny pieces of plastic that wash up onto the dunes of the wet sand.
The amount of plastic is rather astonishing. A glimpse at the glittering waves of La Jolla Shores and its pristine sand doesn’t capture the amounts of littered plastic it truly holds. A closer look at the sand reveals the plastic pollution that we hear about on the news but often don’t recognize. The beach clean-ups are meant to open the eyes of students who care about keeping their oceans clean, as well as to contribute to solving the problem itself, however small the contribution may be.
Alexis Durham, the president of the club and an Eleanor Roosevelt College senior majoring in social psychology, describes how most newcomers to the beach clean-ups are struck by how tiny the pieces of plastic are. As bigger pieces of plastic are broken down by water and sun over time, they become harder and harder to eliminate.
“I like beach clean-up because you can talk all you want about conservation and making a change, but to actually go forth and give people an outlet where they can participate, I think that’s my favorite,” Durham said. “I think just one individual person makes a big enough difference. There’s like ten people here, and we all have our own trash bags. That’s how much less trash is going to be out in the ecosystem.”
Lucille Bell, a Thurgood Marshall College junior majoring in visual arts, appreciates the hands-on nature of the beach clean-up. As she bends down to sort through the minute pieces of plastic in the wet sand, she describes how cleaning up beaches inspires her to adapt her lifestyle to a more waste-free approach.
“Beach clean-ups are one of the ways we can reduce our impact or take back what we’ve already done,” Bell said. “It’s not exactly the most fun activity to do on a weekend, but it reminds you of how important it is to reduce your plastic use. [In] your day-to-day [life] at school, you forget how important it is. And then you see all the plastic on the beach, and you realize you have to clean it up.”
The Ocean Lovers Club first took shape when Jack Shurtz, a Sixth College senior majoring in marine biology, met Durham, and the two of them decided to use their passions for their environment to form a group focused on ocean conservation.
“We both talked about how we wanted to start a club that would connect not only marine biology students but people who care about marine science and keeping the oceans healthy,” Shurtz said. “We also thought it would be cool to be able to organize those who want to do beach clean-ups but don’t have people to do it with.”
Since then, the Ocean Lovers Club has added a number of other events to their activities. Bell describes a personal favorite where a professor taught the group about the prevalence and harmfulness of microplastics.
“There’s actually so much more plastic than we can see with just our eyes. It’s in the sand, the water, and it leaks into our water systems and food through irrigation. Microplastics are a huge issue,” Bell said. “We see the pictures of animals who eat plastic in the ocean, but no one has ever looked at a human stomach and seen how much plastic is in us.”
Shurtz was in charge of arranging a research expo last quarter, inviting professors, graduate students and researchers well-versed in marine biology, environmental studies and the like to speak to students about their work and how they can make a difference. It’s particularly important to Shurtz that those researchers come from a wide variety of fields, and that they’re knowledgeable about applicable, real-world environmental issues.
“Talking about microbes in the ocean and their chemical processes of breaking down seaweed isn’t necessarily interesting or applicable for most people,” Shurtz said. “But we had a researcher last quarter who talked about the science behind plastic and whether we are able to find out how harmful it actually is. This coming quarter, we’re going to have someone who studies water in California talking about California fires, which is extremely applicable.”
The Ocean Lovers Club members feel they are contributing to both a national and worldwide issue — even if they’re starting at the local level. All of them have ideas about how to reduce waste and protect the planet’s oceans. Bell thinks that though often much blame is placed on the consumer, it is the big-time corporations that create the most waste and force their customers to do the same.
“If there’s more incentive for corporations to reduce their plastic or carbon emissions, it could be easier for everyone to live more sustainably. There needs to be a third-party regulator to encourage sustainability and punishment if you’re not sustainable,” Bell said. “There’s the argument that stopping oil will mean a loss of jobs, but you can easily replace those jobs with solar or wind energy.”
Durham concurs. For her, plastic food packaging is one of the main problems in the amount of waste the average American creates each and every day.
“Food packaging does not need to be as intense — you can buy something in a box in a plastic sleeve, and then everything in that plastic sleeve is still individually wrapped — we don’t need to do that,” Durham said. “Turning more to paper-based products might make it a little easier to transition. Then from paper-based to glass or reusable materials, but that’ll be a slow transition.”
The members of the club have varying opinions about how UCSD is doing in their pursuit of a sustainable campus. Bell commends HDH for offering reusable containers and utensils, and for stopping the distribution of plastic straws. But she thinks there is much work to be done, especially at the Oceanview Terrace dining hall, where there are no reusable dish options. She recommends students speak up about the issue to the UCSD Inter-Sustainability Council, of which the Ocean Lovers Club is a part.
“OVT has all-plastic, and everything is disposable. When you get your food, there’s no ‘for here’ option. A lot of student voices need to be heard so there is that change,” Bell said. “The Inter-Sustainability Council is a group on campus that does a lot of listening to what students have to say. And they have a lot of resources within faculty and administration who can actually make the changes that we want … happen. It’s just a matter of talking to them and having good reason.”
Shurtz agrees that the Inter-Sustainability Council holds a lot of potential to promote change at UCSD.
“Going to their meetings, you can see that there are clubs that are trying to enact programs on campus with the main goal of reducing waste, reducing plastic use, and promoting sustainability to college students,” Shurtz said. “Usually, the last thing on students’ minds is sustainability. But if you have programs that make it easy for them, you can do a lot of good. UCSD as a whole is getting better at it, and the Inter-Sustainability Council is leading the way.”
Though she admires the passion of the groups on the Inter-Sustainability Council, Durham thinks there is much more that needs to be done at UCSD, also citing the issue of plastic usage at Oceanview Terrace. She points out that the decisions the university is making as a company do not always line up with the sustainable goals they have for themselves.
“Each restaurant has their own water station with plastic cups when [there are] water fountains in the building. There’s no need for that. Audrey’s just started offering plastic cups when they’re 10 feet away from a water fountain in the library,” Durham said. “As a sustainability org, a lot of us are having problems trying to fight back. We felt like we just got ahead and now we’re two steps back because of the university.”
Shurtz encourages students to do all they can locally to help reduce waste and plastic usage, as plastic pollution in the ocean is a problem which affects each and every world citizen. As plastic is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, it makes its way into the stomachs of sea life, harming or even killing them. The consequences extend to life out of the ocean as well. Humans eat the seafood that has ingested the plastic they’ve polluted, potentially harming their own health as well.
“The oceans filling up with plastic is an international problem that we all share. Whether trash dumped in America ends up somewhere else, it’s still something that makes its way into seafood that we all eat internationally,” Shurtz said. “There’s only so much you can do in terms of talking to your representation throughout the country to let the government know that we want changes in terms of how much fossil fuels are being turned into plastics. But it is also a local issue, and I think we’re contributing to that.”
Durham also thinks that the way to make a change is to start with students. The strategy might be to start small, but it nonetheless makes a big difference. She uses her own coffee mug to get coffee two times a day and points out that she would produce much more waste if she used a disposable cup. Furthermore, she emphasizes the fact that students underestimate the powers their voices have at initiating change on the UCSD campus.
“People will think: I’m just one person, if I complain to Audrey’s, it doesn’t matter. But if you get thirty of your friends to complain to Audrey’s, and they get thirty of their friends to complain to Audrey’s, then you should believe you have a bigger impact than you think you do — because you do,” Durham said. “The government also makes you think this way — that your individual choices don’t make an impact on the global scale. Students need to believe what they’re passionate about is worth the effort. It’s not going to go unheard. If enough people raise awareness about it, then something will change.”
Image Courtesy of the Ocean Lovers Club