War on Plastic Santa Cruz County mulls ban on water bottles and other single-use items

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By Kyle Martin

There’s a war being waged against plastic in the Monterey Bay, and Santa Cruz County is leading the battalion with recent legislation aimed at identifying more ways to shrink plastic consumption.

The directive, approved by the Board of Supervisors last month, asks the Department of Public Works to coordinate with the county’s waste management task force and environmental commission to come up with ways to reduce plastic waste county wide. Not only that, but cigarette butts and throw-away items from restaurants, such as plasticware and to-go boxes, are also in the county’s crosshairs. The board is also exploring policy that would prohibit the use of county funds for plastic water bottles at government meetings and events.

The action was widely hailed by environmental groups in the county that have cited studies indicating plastic waste has a profound impact on sealife. Katherine O’Dea, executive director at Save Our Shores, calls it an “ocean plastic pollution crisis.” (Save Our Shores was among the local organizations that lobbied to create what is now the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.)

“If we can’t protect our ocean, we won’t be able to live on this planet,” O’Dea said. “We have human beings and life on this planet because this is a water planet. Without water, we wouldn’t exist. Nothing would exist. So keeping plastic out of it is a huge deal.”

County staff will return to the board with more precise recommendations in May. Tim Goncharoff, Zero Waste programs manager for the public works department, is in part responsible with tackling the new plastic waste initiative.

“There are so many different kinds of plastics and so many different problems that (the board) decided we need to do more,” Goncharoff said. “Other places have gone farther.”

About 18 billion tons of plastic pollution sits in our oceans right now, according to a December report from National Geographic, with a whopping 90 percent of the world’s plastic having never been recycled. Furthermore, about 44 percent of the world’s plastic has been made since 2000.

In November, the county officials directed area hotels to eradicate all plastic toiletry bottles, for shampoos and such, starting Dec. 31, 2020. Before that, the county was also one of the first to ban plastic straws and single-use plastic bags. And the fight continues.

Goncharoff said his staff will explore policy options this month. He mentioned the possibility of an extended “producer responsibility” policy on cigarette producers to hold them accountable for production of cigarette filters that end up in waterways.

It’s a sense of stewardship, Goncharoff said, that fuels the region’s environmental passion to reduce plastic pollution.

“You know that the level of environmental awareness and concern in Santa Cruz County is higher than almost anywhere,” he said. “People come here for the natural beauty, and they want that protected. If we know there’s pollution coming from our county impacting marine life, we feel we have a responsibility to do something about it.”

Ryan Coonerty, a county supervisor and representative for the integrated waste management task force, called the new directive a “small step, but collectively it can make a difference and hopefully raise awareness.”

“Like so many people believe, it’s just unnecessary plastic, when there are so many good alternatives that don’t create the same amount of pollution,” Coonerty said. He acknowledged sometimes cutting out the single-use plastics can be difficult, especially in a pinch, as when you’re at the grocery store without a bag. “I think like all of us, I struggle because it’s so ubiquitous.”

Ubiquitous indeed, says O’Dea, the director at Save Our Shores. She applauded the county’s latest directive, and she said she hopes to see more government and citizen efforts to ban other harmful items, such as mylar balloons, plastic coffee pods and other single-use plastics. “Ultimately it’s the only way we’re really going to get those items out of the waystream, off our beaches, off our streets,” she said.

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Kyle Martin

About Kyle Martin

Kyle Martin is Fil-Am multimedia journalist born in San Jose, CA who grew up mostly in North Texas around Dallas. After driving his 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee alone cross-country, through the circles of Hell known as the Texas Panhandle and the bottom half of Wyoming, he is now based in the Bay Area. He has experience writing and photographing in Texas, California and elsewhere. Send news tips and restaurant recommendations to kylemartinmedia@gmail.com.