A few years ago, when I first moved to Southern California, I decided to learn how to surf. My favorite part about surfing in San Diego is swimming out past where the waves break to where the water is still and just lying down on the board, looking into the water. Sometimes it’s clear enough to see creatures swimming, like fish and stingrays. One time I even saw dolphins.
But those idyllic waters are changing rapidly, and not for the better. Nowadays, when I look into the ocean, I see more than just fish swimming around; I see plastic bags, straws, foam. The non dissolvable debris of our convenience-obsessed society.
Our oceans are filling with plastic trash. Every day, Americans throw away 70 million foam cups, 500 million plastic straws, and countless other trash that doesn’t biodegrade. Yet, we retain the vision of a world with clean beaches and diverse marine species. This is the future that young people want to see. And it’s the future they have the power to create.
Students from the leading public university in the nation, UCLA, recently organized to commit their campus to phasing out single-use plastics. The first phase will begin in July, when UCLA will get rid of all plastic utensils, cup lids, bowls, plastic bags, and similar “food accessory” items. The policy will include not only sit-down and take-out restaurants at UCLA, but also dining halls, events and even departmental meetings. Because UCLA is one of the largest universities in the U.S. to take action, this policy sets an example for other universities and cities to take bold action.
While the UCs have been working to address the issue of plastic pollution for awhile, student organizing provided the support to secure this commitment. Student leaders from CALPIRG Students at UCLA built grassroots support by signing up over 1600 dues-paying members in support of the policy, collecting 2000 petitions, passing a student government resolution, and collecting over 75 student leader sign ons in support. The students brought this support to campus administrators who agreed to pass the policy.
Sithara Menon, chapter chair of CALPIRG at UCLA, was the campaign coordinator for this campaign. She recruited and trained dozens of other student leaders to play a part in the campaign, and did everything from developing the strategy of the campaign, to organizing the big pledge drive to sign up CALPIRG members in support of the issue. As a biology student, she’s studied how critical a healthy ocean is for our ecosystem and climate.
One memorable moment on the campaign was when Menon worked with her team to organize a beach clean up in Santa Monica with their state senator, Ben Allen. 36 students showed up to clean the beach and do an audit on the most prevalent plastics polluting our beaches.
The fight for cleaner oceans doesn’t stop with UCLA. Now CALPIRG Students at UCLA is working to get rid of single-use plastics in all of LA County. The goal is ambitious, but so are the students working to make it happen.
Sophie Haddad is a CALPIRG campus organizer at UCLA and former CALPIRG student leader at UC San Diego.