Plastic Pollution Pandemic Makes Waves on LA Beaches

A mask litters the shore near the ocean in Hawaii

With increased visits to beaches, increased use of disposable items and decreased funding to municipal services, local beaches are seeing a drastic rise in plastic pollution.

At the same time, organizations like the Surfrider Foundation, which typically organize largescale beach clean-ups, are no longer able to host these events. However, individual cleanups have seen record numbers of plastic bags on the beaches and the widespread proliferation of disposable masks that, along with rubber gloves, make up the personal protective equipment (PPE) that has become commonplace everywhere around Los Angeles in 2020.

“It’s not a new pattern by any means. We live in an urban coastal watershed where, before COVID, we were removing 15,000 pounds of trash off LA County beaches every single year,” Graham Hamilton, Los Angeles coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, told the Santa Monica Daily Press. “What has been brought upon by COVID is the increase of single use disposables, whether that’s PPE or takeout disposables for the food-ware industry.”

This year, the Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay Foundation found that single-use PPE made the top 10 list of trash items found on the beach. Staff also noted a rise in disposable food-ware and takeout containers, which reached fourth and fifth on the list, respectively.

“Workers service beach waste bins on a daily basis. Covid has led to cuts in funding to municipal services so there has been a decrease in the amount of staff who are servicing the beaches on any given day, which has also made the pollution problem much worse,” said Hamilton.

The response to COVID has led to the rollback of many of California’s environmental policies, including the statewide plastic bag ban. In May, Santa Monica eliminated support for compliance with the single-use plastic bag ban and the single-use takeout food container ban. As part of budget revisions, Santa Monica also eliminated zero waste policy and program development and funding for Coastal Clean Up Day. 

The plastic bag ban is now back in place in Santa Monica, but many retailers are confused about the status of single-use plastics and are continuing to use them, according to Hamilton.

This is especially harmful because even if they are not littered directly on the beach, they often get washed into the ocean. According to Hamilton, 80 percent of marine plastic pollution comes from onshore sources.

“You don’t have to go to the beach to conduct a clean-up. Throughout COVID, we’ve been advocating for our members to practice solo community cleanups or physical distance cleanups where they go to their favorite park or their neighborhood or the alley way adjacent to their home and clean up,” Hamilton said. “If the trash doesn’t get removed there, it’s invariably going to end up on the beach after the first rain of the season.”

The Surfrider Foundation advocates for people to not only get involved in plastic clean-ups, but to also change their consumer choices toward reusable goods. Although California and Santa Monica—as well as Malibu—have been pioneers in the fight against plastic, part of that progress has been lost over the course of the pandemic.

“Plastic has infiltrated vertically every nook and cranny of our planet, ranging from the purest air in the world in the Alps to the lowest level of the marine food web in phytoplankton. We are finding plastic in our table salt, we are finding it in our municipal water, we are finding it throughout marine food webs,” Hamilton described. “The impacts of the plastic pollution pandemic cannot be overstated.”


An version of this story previously ran in the Santa Monica Daily Press.