International Surf Day

Banning bags? Plastic isn’t the only problem.


Wed, Jun 20


Hawaii may look like a paradise, but the Islands have many unresolved environmental issues.

International Surf Day / Even when campaigns fail and change seems impossible, activists like those with the Surfrider Foundation stay optimistic enough to eventually overcome the hurdles.

With about 300 chapters worldwide–from Oahu to Japan–and four chapters in Hawaii alone, the group is celebrating International Surf Day on June 20th, an event started in 2002 by Matt McClain, the marketing and communications director of the Surfrider Foundation Headquarters in California.

With surf sessions, beach clean ups and movie nights, the event will be a multinational blast. “There’s that stereotype of environmentalists being gloomy and judgmental,” says Stuart Coleman, the Surfrider Foundationʻs regional coordinator for Hawaii, and freelance writer for the Honolulu Weekly. “We’re not like that. Our people are fun, our events are fun, and so are our rallies.”

The group’s campaigns, however, are all about business. The Oahu Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation participated in 2010’s global “Rise Above Plastics” campaign by introducing and merging two bills in the State Legislature to place a small fee on the use of plastic bags. This was its first step on a long journey towards the group’s ultimate goal to ban both plastic and paper bags.The move was strongly backed by the community; local industries, organizations and individuals submitted 210 testimonies supporting the bill.

Try Again

Ironically, the bill failed to pass. “A few powerful legislative leaders in the House chose not to vote on the bill due to the fact that the [state] budget was taking up all the time on the last day of the committee,” explains Tim Tybuszewski, co-chair of the Oahu Chapter, “Although the Bag Bill had plenty of popular support and enough votes to pass, many other good bills were stalled on the last day of session and not given a floor vote.”

Despite the disappointment, the O’ahu Chapter–in typical Surfrider fashion–has not given up. They plan on re-introducing the bill in the 2012 legislative session, hoping for more time to campaign and get the necessary votes. With the amount of support the bill received this year, it would not be surprising if they succeeded.

Maui, the pioneer of banning plastic bags ban in Hawaii, has already been enjoying the benefits from a county ban since 2008. “If you look at the before/after pictures of Maui,” says Coleman, “The beach before [the ban] makes the plastic bags look like the state flower!” Kauai followed suit a year later.

Angela Howe, the managing attorney for California’s Surfrider Foundation, notes this growing trend: “We are also seeing a global movement toward bag bans. The Republic of Congo just voted to ban bags, and the European Union is in discussions to do so as well.”

So what exactly are the dangers of plastic bags? Nikolai Maximenko, an oceanographer and senior researcher at the International Pacific Research Center at UH-Manoa says, “Plastic is a symbol of the globalization of the problems faced by mankind. Plastic lives long enough to travel all around the ocean, across political, economical and cultural boundaries.”

Here in Hawaii, turtles and birds die from eating fragments of plastic bags because they mistake them for food. Plastic is also dangerous to human health. “Some types of degrading plastic release toxins that enter the ocean food chain and may end up in humans,” says Maximenko. Researchers are discovering that these toxins may cause cancer, birth defects and other serious medical problems.

Plastic isn’t the only problem. Hawaii may look like a paradise, but the Islands have many unresolved environmental issues. Keeping a lid on coastal over-development and maintaining clean water and public beach access are also constant battles for the Oahu Chapter. The Surfrider members and other environmental activists are urging surfers and beachgoers to get involved and help keep the beach clean. “It’s like we’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” Coleman says wryly. “We’re just feeding the goose plastics and toxins.”

Being environmentally responsible requires change, and the members of the Oahu Chapter refuse to get discouraged by the slow progress. The optimism of these surfers is not from relaxing surf sessions or sun-basking; their positive attitudes come from a passionate and determined belief that the future will see so-called non-environmentalists getting involved, following the example of the hard work of volunteers and other activists.

“To see the passion in those people really inspires me,” says Tybuszewski. “I do feel that I can do my part to make a difference and preserve the things that I think are important; not just to me, but to future generations as well.”

International Surf Day, Diamond Head Beach Entrance, Sun., 6/20, 10am–Noon