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About The Plastic Pick-Up

In the spring of 2016, my dad (Mike Weber) and I (Alex Weber) were freediving along the central coast of California in the shallow waters adjacent to the Pebble Beach golf course, when we came across a discovery that had never been reported before. Thousands of golf balls blanketed the seafloor, and inhabited nearly every crack and crevice in the underwater and onshore environment. The overabundance of inorganic materials was overwhelming but for a second it did not phase us. As we began diving to the bottom to collect the balls, we realized what perfect freediving training it was and the whole operation felt like a fun game; we were having a blast. But soon, the enormity and vast scale of the pollution set in and it made me feel sick to my stomach. To preface this day, for a few years prior I had been spending at least an hour a day down at the beach collecting microplastics and nurdles after heavy storms would wash them ashore. As a kid I was raised in the sea, boogie boarding everyday after school in kindergarten, scuba diving as soon as I was allowed to, and spending each summer day swimming offshore to hang out with dolphins and swim through giant kelp forests. To me the ocean was a peaceful home as well as my favorite teacher, so the discovery of such a large scale underwater plastic problem both shocked me and also captivated my curiosity. What began as a day of freediving resulted in a project that has changed my life ever since.

 

The next dive-able day, we were underwater early in the morning equipped with mesh bags and a new diver, Jack Johnston. Jack and I had been long time friends since middle school, and spent all our time together either underwater or on mountains, so he didn’t need much convincing to come along. Jack’s reaction was similar to mine, but his wildly curious mind helped him stay positive and motivated. That day we collected nearly 2,000 golf balls which was just the start of what grew into The Plastic Pick-Up. As we continued diving, we were not only collecting golf balls, but data too. We began to understand the benthography around the coast; each cove and collection site earned a name, each underwater fissure was numbered, and even the seals and otters became distinguishable and given names as well. We began to understand how the seasons impacted the dive-ability and where the underwater currents, swells, and tides would move the balls. We explored more, up and down the coastline and discovered new hotspots and aggregations. As the months and years went by, our golf ball collection grew and grew from the backyard, to the garage, to the shed as it became larger and larger. As of today (September 2018) we have collected a combined 50,000 golf balls and that number will continue to grow.

 

When asked why I so persistently work on this unheard of problem, I can’t help but to answer with “guilt”. The more I dive, backpack, explore, and experience nature, the more regretful I feel about how humans have transformed the earth into something of their possession. I’ve always felt the need to give back in some way and when I came across this issue I knew it would be a perfect way to help out a little bit. That being said, as the collection of balls exponentially grew I brought this matter into the hands of the corporations producing this pollution. Yet after repeated failed attempts to have a serious and productive conversations discussing a plan of action, I realized that policy change was not going to happen without documenting scientific data. This marked the start of my research study.

 

As a junior in high school I had basically no knowledge about writing scientific manuscripts and all the work that comes with them, and as I googled “golf balls in the ocean”, it didn’t help that the only things that would pop up were articles and news programs about myself. Luckily, Matthew Savoca joined the fun and generously became my mentor and adviser. Matthew is a postdoctoral researcher at the Hopkins Marine Lab of Stanford University, and has published research on the chemical cues in marine plastic that discern whether the plastic debris could be attractive to wildlife. Matthew’s research caught my eye because he investigates how dimethyl sulfide (DMS) is a food trigger for many birds and fish, and is also being absorbed by ocean plastic.  He made the connection to explain why wildlife was ingesting this ocean plastic! I wondered if DMS may be responsible for the strong mysterious odor that the collected golf balls emit. I reach out to him because I was curious if he could test the golf balls for DMS, and as a result he not only wanted to learn all about our golf ball collection but also offered to become my mentor and teach me how to write a scientific paper. I was ecstatic, and after nearly a year of work I was able co-author a research study to the Marine Pollution Bulletin which is now in review. To read more about the research paper go to The Golf Ball Project page.

 

As a byproduct of collecting this pollution and publishing data, we have been introduced to the world of media and outreach. When we first started this project Jack and I had no greater fear than public speaking, but soon we realized spreading our message and discovery was worth the discomfort. We appeared in countless new articles and TV reports, magazines including Sports Illustrated, Hakai Magazine, Golf magazine, and spoke at multiple events including World Ocean Day with Jack Johnson and the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit. Through each event we were connected to more inspiring people that helped us continue our work and gain new mentors. To find out more about past events and news stories check out the News page.

"An individual action, multiplied by millions, creates global change."

Jack Johnson

Our Mission

Our mission is to create mindset change by showing people where their pollution goes, and to help reduce the marine pollution problem by education and removal

 

Our Vision

Our vision is to make global change in the golf industry by holding golf courses responsible for the plastic pollution they emit to our precious oceans and waterways.

Photo Cred: Robert Beck

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