How “Ocean Friendly” initiatives in San Diego are combatting the rise of COVID-19 plastic pollution

San Diego ocean conservation groups pioneer innovative ways to go green and reduce single-use plastic as COVID-19 lockdowns continue.

While restaurant takeout and delivery options allow customers to socially distance while enjoying their food from home, it has unleashed a plastic tsunami with mountains of single-use trash washing up on California beaches and roadways.

At the 36th annual California’s Coastal Cleanup, over 13,000 volunteers collected 130,000 pounds of trash from neighborhoods, beaches, parks and other outdoor recreational areas in September 2020. To stay safe and promote social distancing, this year’s cleanups moved away from large community public spaces and instead encouraged people to clean up their neighborhoods.

Last year, over 74,000 volunteers collected 900,000 pounds of trash. With the United States surpassing 10 million cases on Monday, ocean conservatory and anti-plastic initiatives are fighting to keep California clean amidst the swell in disposable plastic products.

San Diego resident Janis Jones is the Rise Above Plastics co-lead for the San Diego County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. She is an educator in Oceanside and a self-titled “obsessive beach cleaner.” After the initial March shutdown, Jones started documenting litter she discovered while walking around her neighborhood.

“I have now over thirteen hundred masks and gloves documented in my five-mile radius of walk,” she said. “I find them in the creek, I find them in the storm drains, I find them everywhere.”

I Love a Clean San Diego (ILACSD) is a nonprofit that actively works to combat litter and waste throughout San Diego County. The organization hosts monthly virtual cleanups via social media, mobilizing volunteers to clean up their neighborhood streets, parks, canyons and beaches. ILACSD’s virtual cleanups start with an online broadcast via Facebook Live covering safety tips and recycling advice for volunteers.

“People are doing more of this self-cleanup, but they’re still getting out there,” said Ian Monahan, the Philanthropy and Marketing Senior Manager of ILACSD. “They still care, they want to see improvements.”

With these volunteer opportunities, people are easily able to view their personal trash totals and collection efforts. ILACSD piloted an online reporting system where volunteers self-report their cleanup totals to view the amount of trash they collected. Ocean Conservancy has also developed an app called Clean Swell that records how much debris an individual collects and awards incremental badges as more trash is accumulated.

Eben Schwartz, the Marine Debris Program Manager for the California Coastal Commission, said these virtual neighborhood cleanups are more convenient and create opportunities for widespread volunteer outreach.

“It opened the cleanup to many more people who may not have access to a beach, may not have access to a natural area, but still want to be able to contribute to the health of our coast,” Schwartz said. “This is a great way for them to do that anytime, anywhere.”

I Love a Clean San Diego is the official organizer of the California Coastal Cleanup Day in San Diego County. Last month, Monahan said volunteers self-reported picking up 3,000 masks in one day.

In 2020, California Coastal Cleanup Day, which is part of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup Day, turned into a month-long initiative to motivate people to clean up their neighborhoods. As an activist for the Surfrider Foundation and an avid beach cleaner, Jones said COVID-19 is a health crisis, both on land and at sea.

“The impact is enormous because the masks and gloves are made out of plastic fibers, which will break down and be ingested by sea life,” Jones said. “The bright blue colors, the blue of the mask and the blue that is used in many of the gloves, is very attractive to many forms of sea life.”

Monahan said PPE products are only part of the problem.

“The other thing that we’re finding is that there is increased plastic generated by to-go containers,” Monahan said. “These are all direct results of this COVID lifestyle that we’re living under.”

Ocean advocate Vicki Conlon is the lead of the Ocean Friendly Restaurant Program for the San Diego chapter of Surfrider and heavily involved in the launch of its newest program: Ocean Friendly To-Go.

“Beach cleanups are wonderful for the trash that ends up on the beaches — it prevents that trash from going out into our oceans,” Conlon said. “But we realized very quickly that the real solution is to reduce the amount of single-use plastics that are being used in the first place so that hopefully the beach cleanup people won’t be so busy out there on the beaches.”

To join the program, Ocean Friendly restaurants must meet certain criteria and pay a yearly membership fee. The initiative started in San Diego’s chapter but has since become a national Surfrider program. There are 127 Ocean Friendly Restaurants in San Diego County, however, everything came to a halt when restaurants shut down in March.

Now, however, Conlon sees the new Ocean Friendly To-Go program as a way to get back on track.

“It will save restaurants money because they’re not going to be using those to-go containers,” Conlon said. “As more and more customers hear about the program, it will just save them more and more money.”

When a customer places an order online, Conlon said, they simply mark their meal as an “Ocean Friendly To-Go” order. The kitchen will prepare the order as if the customer were dining in at the restaurant. When the customer arrives, they’ll be directed to a designated Ocean Friendly table where they can transfer the food from the restaurant’s plate into their reusable container. The program is based on Assembly Bill No. 619. The bill was passed last year and legalized restaurant use of customer to-go containers when boxing food.

The first restaurant to pilot the new Ocean Friendly To-Go program is GOODONYA Organic Eatery in Encinitas. Conlon said they hope to have GOODONYA’s “Ocean Friendly” criteria up and running toward the end of the month.

“People will be very surprised by next spring how many restaurants will have gone out of business,” Conlon said. “We understand that this program might be very slow to start, but we’re just planting the seed. We’re just kind of getting it out there so that when the time is right for restaurants to take this on, they can say, ‘Hey, you know, there’s this program, I think we’re ready to launch this.’”