Plastic trash from the Rijuana River
Trash that has been pulled from the Tijuana River lies in a pile, waiting to be collected and carted away.

From our shared border with Mexico to our county’s northernmost point, with the Pacific Ocean as our backyard, San Diego is known for its beautiful beaches. Yet, there is something insidious happening.

At the rate of one trash truck full per minute all day long, every day, plastics mostly only used one time, then thrown away, are making their way into the ocean. They flow there via the Tijuana River, other rivers and estuaries, and storm drains. It happens all over the world, but the problem is worse in developing countries, the same places where we ship our plastic trash.

Developing countries lack the infrastructure to handle the sorting and disposal of these items properly. Surprisingly, despite that recycling symbol that leads us to believe otherwise, only around 9% of all plastics ever made over the past 70 years have been recycled.

Capt. Charles Moore, the discoverer of the North Pacific garbage patch, a researcher, educator, and author of “Plastic Ocean,” tells us there is no “away” with plastics. Once produced, these human-made materials never leave our planet. Plastics mostly come from CO2-producing, cheaply fracked fossil fuels, and are made with petrochemical-derived synthetic plasticizers.

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Many are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Designed to last for decades, but thrown away after only one use, they are not easily biodegraded in and by nature. Instead, they break down into tiny micro and even tinier nano plastics that absorb other toxic pollutants.

We must break our addiction, from “to go” containers and plasticware, plastic coffee cups, lids, sachet packets, water bottles, straws, wipes, cigarette butts, plastic bags, and the like. These items are wreaking havoc on beaches worldwide, the ocean, and our entire planet.

Plastics of all shapes and sizes are choking and killing wildlife. Remember the news, Internet photos, and YouTube videos of the dead whale washed up after swallowing 200 plastic bags, that poor turtle with a straw stuck up its nose, and an Albatross chick with a belly full of lighters and Coca-Cola bottle caps?

Plastic pollution is everywhere, in the deepest parts of the ocean, at both poles, and on land in our neighborhoods, city centers, parking lots, local and national parks, and on the side of all roads and freeways. If you look anywhere, you will see it!

Sadly, all of that plastic that has been shipped “away,” dumped, or made its way to the center of the ocean finds its way back to us, humans. As Sen. Tom Udall points out, each of us now consumes a credit card worth of plastic each week in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Plastics are also in our soil and in the falling rain and snow.

We consumers cannot fix the problem ourselves. The problem is that the plastic production faucet is already turned on full blast. There’s no “away” for the plastics we’ve already produced and discarded since the 1950s. The new ones keep spewing out of the faucet faster and faster, more and more. In our gorgeous backyard, the bathtub is spilling over plastics everywhere, and into our life, sustenance, recreation, and peace-of-mind-giving ocean, with no end in sight.

At this rate, in just five years, for every three pounds fish in the sea, there will be one pound of plastic!

We can scour the beach and pull plastic pieces out of the ocean all we want. Still, we cannot stop the plastics from flowing into the sea at an ever-increasing rate, unless we tackle the supply-side of plastics head-on. The only way to stem the tide of plastic pollution is by turning off the faucet!  We need to “break free” from once used, throw-away plastics. We need to do this now!

Please call, write, or tweet your representative and senator today. Please ask them to co-sponsor and support the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020.  This novel bill will tackle the most common forms of plastic pollution while saving taxpayers and municipalities billions in inadequate and unsustainable cleanup efforts and holding large corporations accountable for their waste.

Lori Mendez is a San Diego attorney who has a masters degree in marine biodiversity and conservation from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.