Kathleen Egan — surfer, artist, and environmental activist — heads up SF Surfrider’s Plastics Subcommittee, which is working to end the plague of plastic pollution in our oceans. I first met her last month displaying her Plastic Wave sculpture (made from the collected plastic of 12 friends over two weeks) at Adventure Ecology’s SMART Art competition.
We met again this past Friday and ended up hanging out at San Francisco’s Pier 29-1/2 (where David de Rothschild is building his Plastiki boat from recycled plastic) after an unfortunate collision between a U-Haul trailer and a metal warehouse gate. Sitting and waiting for the repair people to arrive gave us a chance to see a glimpse of the Plastiki in progress, play with a couple of cute dogs, and enjoy the sun while chatting about all things plastic.
Kathleen began surfing in 2001 after moving to San Francisco and having a surfer friend take her under his wing, and the practice has become life-changing.
“Every wave is unique. Every time on the board is a slightly different experience. Balancing is hard, but catching a wave in the first place is the first challenge. It takes hours of practice. You can’t accelerate the learning process. You just have to put the time in.”
She tells me that to surf is to be totally in the moment. Multi-tasking is not possible because the sport requires total focus. You’re aware of wind, water, other animals or people around you, and emotions like fear. These waves can be very scary. And then she says something I love so much, I have to make her pause so I can get the words down exactly right:
“You are where you are. You have to go through the waves to get out and through the waves again to get back in.”
It’s a metaphor, not only for life, but for the environmental movement and for finding ways to live sustainably. There are no shortcuts. My interpretation: we can’t wait for some miracle technology to save us from the mess we’ve made. Each of us must do our part, every day. We can’t bypass the waves; we have to go through them.
Kathleen became aware of the plastic pollution problem after a presentation given by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation over two years ago. Surfing in destinations all over the world, she’s seen the problem first hand in Indonesia, Mexico, Hawaii. Now, she points at an empty plastic bottle on the dock near our feet and says that when you first start noticing how much plastic there is, and then realize how fast the population is growing, you make the connection about how much plastic each person generates, and the amounts are alarming, the problem overwhelming. “We can’t reach everyone all at once, but we can focus on the people who are open to change and who just need the right information to get involved.”
(Perhaps we can start a “wave” that will pick up the others as it gains momentum and grows bigger.)
As for art, Kathleen has always been creative, but she started working with plastic trash around the same time she became aware of the problem. During a beach cleanup a few years ago, the colored shards of plastic strewn across the sand reminded her of mardi gras beads and gave her the idea to create mosaics. She collects plastic from the beaches wherever she surfs. In fact, the plastic in her blue wave mosaic (on the left) is from a trip to Indonesia. She plans to create her next piece with plastic from El Salvador.
But scooping up bits of plastic for art projects isn’t enough. And, Kathleen insists, all of our small personal changes will not be enough without cooperation and change from businesses. Our conversation becomes animated at this point — me arguing that we won’t get companies to change until individuals themselves change first and begin to vote with their dollars — and Kathleen insisting that not all individuals are going to change and that a handful of passionate activists can make a big difference.
We’re both right, of course. Look at the success of the Brita campaign. Kathleen wants to take a similar approach to urge Jamba Juice to give up using Styrofoam cups and plastic straws for its drinks. And she wants more visibility into what companies are doing. In addition to her avocations as surfer, artist, and activist, Kathleen has a day job involving some pretty large corporations. When she asks what motivates them to “go green,” she hears answers like brand image, efficiency, government regulation. But she never hears that they want to avoid negative press. She asks, why not? Why aren’t more of us out here letting companies know we won’t tolerate unsustainable products and practices?
What will it take to create this wave?