by Maria Rose
Lauren Brajer and Jessica Miller (top row) talks with attendees about the strangest things she’s seen on beach cleanups. Mike Castellano and Danielle Pietrucha (bottom row) listen with attendees.
This used to be a surf shop.
Surf boards of turquoise and lemon yellow hang suspended from the Asbury Park Yacht Club ceiling. A threadbare green couch squats on a weathered carpet, while rattan screens enclose the viewing members who have come to see a short version of the documentary that has galvanized the public in recent years: A Plastic Ocean.
Mike Castellano, chair of the Jersey Shore Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, moves around the floor hooking up a laptop to a projector that will play A Plastic Ocean for the cadre of interested viewers, an event presented by the Surfrider Foundation. Some in attendance are members with newcomers trickling in, but all are concerned for the future of the ocean. Mike brings a palpable energy of cheer as the last AUX connection is made and the screen flickers into life. “Yeah, all right,” he says.
Mike attended his first beach cleanup in November of 2013 in Point Pleasant. Afterwards, he came back once a year to continue participating in more cleanups, moving closer to the Jersey Shore. His role grew from there as he got deeper into ocean activism and found his way to his first Surfrider meeting in 2017.
Lauren Brajer arrives on the scene a little later. She claims her spot on the green couch with a glass of sangria and a smile. “I ended up being asked to do work on the website,” she says, sipping as members talk. “And two months later, I was vice chair of the [Jersey Shore Chapter] Surfrider Foundation .”
Lauren’s relationship with the ocean has been complicated. In 2012, her residence in Beach Haven West on Long Beach Island was severely damaged by the storm. “I was angry with the ocean for awhile,” she says. (In fairness, we all were.)
Their activist journeys intersected while Brajer was vice chair, and she supported Mike as he took over the chair position from his predecessor.
Stragglers wander in with drinks in hand and find their spaces. The lights dim with the sun setting behind the boardwalk, casting rays into the front of the building on the Ocean Avenue side, slanting through the rattan screens.
A Plastic Ocean clocks in at a palatable 20 minutes. It’s enough time for the documentary to convey the tragic consequences of what, for most of us, are reflexive habits in our lives that barely cross our consciousness.
Plastics, for nearly a century, has been merely background noise, but the noise has now become so loud in its urgency it can no longer be ignored.
Jersey Shore Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation works on plastic legislation in NJ. Another person in the foundation acts as a liaison who works in conjunction with local township environmental groups. Their biggest legislation is making it down the pike: a comprehensive state bill to ban plastic bags.
But this will be more than a major bill for the state; it will be the largest plastic law in the country of its kind.
From the Surfrider website, they explain that the new bill S 2776 will ban plastic bags, plastic straws, polystyrene foam in food containers, and place a fee on paper bag use.
Smaller local areas are already ahead of the state. Stafford Township farther south in Ocean County already banned the use of plastic bags in commercial stores. The Surfrider Foundation’s presence is felt within these tangible changes through Jersey Shore Chapter as well as South Jersey Chapter and other chapters that hug the coasts, and also evident in the Surfrider Ocean Friendly restaurant program. Local restaurants are eligible to be deemed “Ocean Friendly” by following a set of standards to cut down on single use plastics, for example. (Dinner for the documentary event is being held at Langosta Lounge and APYC, already participants of the Ocean Friendly program. There will be no plastic straws here.)
For all this, Mike notes, people are sometimes confused by what the Surfrider Foundation is, exactly.
“People get there and say, oh, I can’t surf,” Mike laughs. As it turns out, the Jersey Shore chapter of the foundation would like to do a surfing contest— but surfing is not a requirement to encourage greater stewardship of the ocean and its beaches.
The Surfrider Foundation itself was borne out of the love of surfing. In 1984, Glenn Hening, Lance Carson, and Tom Pratte founded Surfrider in response to growing coastal development in Malibu, California. But what started from a small grass roots movement has grown into a foundation with more than 50,000 members.
Mike and Lauren try to do one clean up a month, and are surprised by the plastic they find while cleaning the area beaches.
What’s the strangest thing they’ve found?
Lauren doesn’t hesitate. “Sewage cakes.”
Sewage cakes are not a technical term, but the name Lauren has given to the object. One might imagine a school of urinal cakes, flushed or thrown away, bonding together and continuing to absorb water from the sewers until all that remains is a much larger nightmarish, “off-white colored” object. It’s been speculated it may be a type of sewage sludge treatment involving biomatter, but we’re not certain of that. (Don’t ask.)
Aside from sewage cakes, notables were seahorses and the fenders of cars.
Jersey Shore Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation does not sit idly by while plastic is collected in their beach cleanups. The data is noted and tracked. Their activism is an ongoing conversation with the public and still very much a grass roots organization that depends on the activism of individuals. Social media allows that conversation to keep going, as the Jersey Shore Chapter encourages individual cleanups and invites those individuals to share and use the hashtag #plasticfreenj.
After watching the documentary tracking the movement of plastic through the bodies of fish and seabirds, the urgency of what’s happening in the ocean actually arrives on our dinner plates later in the evening. The documentary event came with a dinner service, complete with offerings of yellowfin tuna.
Dare we eat, knowing what we know? We did, but our light-hearted banter is the equivalent of whistling past the graveyard.
It can be hard to see how the cleanups make a difference compared to the vastness of the ocean as a whole, but the bigger change is a growing cultural one as every day people realize the effects of plastic, and are making a concentrated effort to alter their behavior.
We may be a polarized public in our politics, but there seems to be little argument that our passion for our beaches and the way of life it represents unites us all.
Here is information on how you can get involved:
Jersey Shore Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation holds cleanups throughout the Jersey Shore, and they will be at Bayside Parkway and Ocean Avenue in Middletown on Saturday, September 14, from noon to 4 pm; and in Belmar at Joe’s Surf Shack, 415 18th Avenue, on Saturday, October 5th, from noon to 3 pm. Visit their website for more information.
You can connect with the Jersey Shore Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and learn more through these links:
• Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/SurfriderJSC
• Twitter – https://twitter.com/SurfriderJSC or @SurfriderJSC
• Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/surfriderjerseyshore/
• Join Surfrider – http://www.surfrider.org/support-surfrider?source=CH27
• Local Chapter Website – https://jerseyshore.surfrider.org/