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Activist Spotlight: Mark O'Connor With The San Diego Chapter

Q: What is your current role with the Surfrider Foundation?
I am a co-lead with the Rise Above Plastic program for the San Diego County Chapter. I am also an environmental commissioner for the City of Encinitas. 

Q: Why and when did you get involved with the Surfrider Foundation?
About six years ago, I began doing my own beach cleanups and found myself putting debris in my pockets. I started bringing a small bag with me, and soon realized that I needed a bucket and grabber. I was perplexed by some of the objects I picked up and wanted to figure out what they were. As I looked for the answer, I discovered Surfrider San Diego. I joined an in-person meeting and showed the group one of the items, which was identified by another volunteer as coming off of an amphibious vehicle from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. I knew then that I had found my people.

It was during this same time that my first grandchild was conceived. I had been learning about the dangers of plastics and decided to dedicate my volunteer hours to my grandson. I now have three grandchildren and two more on the way. I tell people that I am going to volunteer until the oldest can vote, which means that I have about 13 more years to dedicate to helping end some of this plastic pollution. 

Q: What are some environmental issues that are affecting your local community?
It’s probably pretty much the same in every community. Plastic debris (and all litter) can end up in storm drains and creeks where it makes its way to the ocean. It not only looks bad, it has a negative impact on tourism and public health — and our environment. 

Our Rise Above Plastics program is all about working with cities to find solutions, including single-use plastic reduction policies. Surfrider’s beach cleanup data, along with NOAA’s data, helps us identify products that need tackling, such as plastic straws, utensils, takeout containers, polystyrene foam, balloons, cigarette filters, and more. 

Mark O'Conner With The San Diego Chapter

Q: What Surfrider projects have you worked on?
I am blessed to volunteer with my RAP co-lead, Janis Jones. We work together on projects and have influenced the cities of Oceanside, Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar, Vista, and San Marcos to implement single-use plastic reduction ordinances. We are currently working on similar proposals in La Mesa, Chula Vista, and Coronado.

We also have a balloon pollution sub-committee and three cities including Encinitas, Solana Beach, and Del Mar, have banned the sale, use, and distribution of lighter than air balloons. The three cities are neighbors so a little over 10 miles of contiguous coastline are now protected — and we continue the work.

Q: Are there any specific projects that you have worked on that benefited your community? 
The number one thing picked up worldwide is cigarette butt filters. I am a member of a coalition that is working to eliminate tobacco product waste. Coalition partners include environmental nonprofit organizations, health organizations, and staff from the San Diego State University’s Center for Tobacco. 

As a City of Encinitas environmental commissioner, I worked within the commission to prepare a report and ordinance to prohibit the smoking of cigarettes and vapes on all public property in the City of Encinitas. The ordinance has been passed, signs have been posted, and enforcement actions are getting ready to start. 

I focused on the environmental concerns related to cigarette butts in the ocean while the other nonprofits that participated represented young people and public health. It was a true collaboration of environmental and health partners working together for the good of the planet and all creatures on it, including humans. 

The beach cleanup cigarette butt data gathered in the past will be compared to butt collection data going forward and will hopefully show that the ordinance has helped reduce the number of butts on our beaches. 

Mark O'Conner With The San Diego Chapter
Q: What has been the highlight of your Surfrider experience?
Highlights include reducing cigarette butt pollution and balloon pollution. Balloons harm our marine wildlife. I have developed a small coalition that includes SeaWorld Rescue, which recovers injured/sick sea turtles, sea lions, seabirds, and other marine life. Using an endoscope that goes into the stomach, they are able to remove plastic debris and balloons. They recently removed a balloon from a very sick sea turtle found off the coast of San Diego. They nursed it back to health and successfully released it. 

Knowing that we have been able to influence three cities to stop balloon pollution and help prevent injury and death to our local sea turtle population is very special to me. Cigarette filters are the number one pollutant on our beaches, so the action Encinitas took is also a highlight.

Q: Do you have any personal experiences or campaigns/issues you're passionate about where the social justice and environmental movements intersect?
The push away from using plastic water bottles and plastic bags costs families money. A metal water bottle can be $30.00 so a family of four would need to spend $120 to go plastic-bottle free. 

Reusable grocery bags also have a price. While standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, someone might have to decide whether to pay 10 cents each for plastic bags or buy nice reusable bags for $5.00 a piece; if three bags are needed, the difference could pay for a lot of bread, milk, and eggs. 

To help offset the impact, I have worked with local groups like Rotary Clubs to conduct water bottle and reusable bag drives. 1,000 bags have been donated so far. The bags are delivered to the Encinitas Community Resource Center, where they are used in their food pantry. When people return to the pantry to pick up food, they get extra items for bringing the bags with them, and they also now have reusable bags that they can take with them when grocery shopping.

In addition, over 200 metal water bottles were donated and were provided to Los Angelitos, a local nonprofit that supports families at or near the poverty level by paying for youth soccer fees and water safety classes for non-swimmers. The bottles were given out during soccer registration, and although I was not present, I’m told the families were very appreciative. 

Mark O'Conner With The San Diego Chapter

Q: What is the most important thing you tell others about Surfrider?
I participate in beach cleanups and other events during which I am in contact with the public. I always provide a quick overview of our committees and share how committed we are to protecting the ocean and beaches for all. I let people know that we are a 99.9% volunteer organization that is open to everyone. When someone expresses interest in volunteering, I encourage them to find what they are passionate about. I tell people about the core volunteer training that provides an overview of all the committees, and I also encourage them to attend some committee meetings. This way, they can find the program that will keep them volunteering for a lifetime, not just for one project. 

Q: Why is being a part of the Surfrider ocean conservation community important to you?
Once you join Surfrider, you are empowered to act. As a Rise Above Plastic lead, I feel supported by the entire Surfrider community. I have support from the SD Chapter Manager, SD Policy Manager, and SD Beach Cleanup Coordinator, and I know I also have the support of HQ staff, when needed. Over time, Surfrider has built an amazing reputation for doing what is right for the ocean and for all who enjoy it. Being able to use Surfrider’s clout adds a lot to making progress and getting things done. 

Mark-Oconner-6Activist Spotlight: Mark O'Conner With The San Diego Chapter playing music with his band