You know the only thing worse than seeing trash littered all over the beach? It’s reading yet another preachy post about single-use plastics. I’m half-joking, but I’m acutely aware of beating a dead horse – especially in progressive Santa Monica.

But if you’ve ever doubted the selfishness of humankind, come down to the beach near the Pier very early on a Monday morning in the summer. Busted-up Styrofoam coolers, disposable vape pens and dirty McDonald’s wrappers riddle the sand and parking lots – tossed aside by careless visitors like used Kleenex.

It’s downright depressing. Can you imagine someone chucking a half-eaten foil-wrapped burrito or Slurpee cup onto the Grand Canyon floor or a pristine meadow in Yosemite Valley? Yet that’s the abuse our city’s most precious natural area takes each and every summer weekend.

And while meatheads leaving debris behind at the beach is so glaring, the bigger issue is the waste carried to our shorelines via the County’s labyrinth stormdrain system. An estimated 80% of the debris that winds up on L.A.
shorelines comes from inland. The Pico-Kenter stormdrain, located in front of the Casa del Mar hotel, funnels trash-laden runoff from the entire Westside to the sand. No matter how conscientious city planners are with our wastestream, our beaches will always be at the mercy of neighboring cities. That’s why regional solutions are critical. Thankfully, there’s some light at the end of legislative tunnel.

At Heal the Bay, I got a lot of mileage posting photos of sea turtles with straws sticking out of their noses or sea lions with heads stuck in six-pack rings. The suffering of innocent animals pulls on donors’ heart-strings. But the reality is that Big Oil is slowly and methodically strangling us.

Plastic garbage just doesn’t foul the ocean, it’s accelerating the climate change that is poised to kill millions around the globe because of wildfires, famine, heat stroke and the like. Single-use plastic is made from the burning of fossil fuels. And the petroleum industry is staking its future on plastic, given that demand for gasoline is shrinking because of higher-efficiency vehicles and the surge in electric vehicles. Reuters reports that plastic will be the greatest growth market for oil in the next decade, with plastic production expected to double by 2040!

So much for the myth of recycling. The costs associated with gathering, sorting and cleaning plastic trash to create new “upcycled” products are simply uneconomic. It’s far easier and cheaper for producers to just use fossil fuels on so-called “virgin plastic.” And the vicious cycle repeats itself.

Some 85% of single-use plastic items in California are not actually recycled. With best intentions, we dutifully sort and place yogurt cups and newspaper wrappers into blue receptacles in our driveways. But the vast majority of the items wind up in the landfill. Another depressing thought, huh?

The failure of recycling programs demonstrates that sometimes we need more stick and less carrot. That means bans on certain products or consumer fees on plastic bags and the like. The idea of “producer responsibility” is gaining traction nationwide as well, whereby the costs of waste collection and disposal are transferred away from taxpayers and onto the back of companies that make and use plastic.

Californians can put some teeth in meaningful plastic reform next fall, when we vote on a statewide ballot measure that would tax producers of single-use plastic packaging, with revenue allocated for environmental programs. But more important, the measure would force producers to reduce the amount of single-use plastic packaging and foodware by 25% by 2030. It’s a great start. If you love the beach, you should vote Yes.

Big Oil is already mobilizing to defeat the measure, with chemical industry lobbyists arguing that sustainability efforts are better focused on making homes more energy-efficient or reducing food waste.

I take such arguments with a grain of salt. After all, nearly 90% of table salt sold commercially contains microplastics, according to National Geographic. Tiny plastic shards from plastic bags, kids toys, personal care products and what-not find their way to the sea and then leach into the water.

Scientists still don’t know how microplastic ingestion affects humans in the long-term, be it sprinkling salt on your eggs or consuming wild seafood. But studies on animals show that microplastics cause metabolic disorders and toxicity in the liver. Even more scary: there will be more plastic in the sea by mass than fish by 2050, according to the Ocean Conservancy.
Now that’s some food for thought.

Matthew King grew up on the beaches of Santa Monica, where his father served as a County lifeguard for 30 years. He sneaks away from his communications and marketing consultancy as often as he can to surf Bay Street and other local breaks.