Kyle Theirmann gave a presentation on plastic pollution as part of the University’s Earth Day celebrations. | Photo by James McIntosh.

On April 10, the University of Rhode Island Office of Sustainability kicked off Earth Day by hosting a professional surfer, journalist and activist who travels the world examining the massive dilemma of plastic pollution that creates deadly habitats for marine life and people all around the world.

“Surfing for Change” was the first of numerous events to celebrate Earth Day, which will be going on at URI throughout the month of April.

Kyle Thiermann began his presentation by telling audience members about himself and how he became involved in documenting the crisis of disposable plastics. Growing up in California, Thiermann originally wanted to be a professional skateboarder, and later found his passion for surfing.

Although he was never a dedicated student, Thiermann soon found his passion for the environment after a clothing brand sponsored him and he started researching where his clothing was actually coming from.

“When I was able to make a job out of learning, it enriched my life,” Thiermann said. “When I threw myself into one subject and the next, not 100 percent sure that I could pull it off, doors started opening up for me and on the other side of those doors, were engaged, passionate, people that I wanted to hang out with.”

After giving a backstory on his passion for skating, surfing and learning, Thiermann used the metaphor of surfing and the ocean to convey how it relates to the pollution we see across the world.

“When you see a wave crash on your beach, there is a good chance it traveled halfway around the world to get to you,” Thiermann said. “Similarly, the story of plastics started thousands of miles away from you.”

After explaining how waves are made, Thiermann took students through the story of a something as simple as the plastic wrap around a bell pepper in grocery stores. Thiermann explained that the story of the plastic wrap most likely began at the bottom of a fracking well in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Houston, Texas.

“Fracking is known as the process of cracking open the Earth’s crust with chemicals to release liquified natural gas, some of these gasses are poisonous and are flared off, but others are ethane which is one of the building blocks that plastic is made out of,” Thiermann said.

Thiermann said that ethan is transported from Louisiana to Houston, where it will be refined. He said that where plastics are refined is a place known as “cancer alley” where the groundwater contamination causes birth defects, and cancer rates are some of the highest in the country.

The disposable products industry release their chemicals into communities they deem most disposable, according to Thiermann.

“This place is home to mostly poor African Americans and this is what people talk about when they use terms such as environmental racism,” Thiermann said.

Thiermann then informed the audience on the process of the plastic wrap fajita, saying that the wrapper was refined and made into the wrap, filled with peppers, and shipped off to grocery stores. Then, someone would buy it and threw the wrapper into either the trash or the recycling bin.

“The difference between the wave and the plastic wrapped fajita is that once the wave crashes, the energy dissipated and it’s story is over,” Thiermann said. “However, when you throw the container into the  blue bin like a good environmentalist, its story continues.”

The U.S. used to send almost half of its plastic to China. However, two years ago, China said they would no longer take our plastics.

According to Thiermann, this could be a good things because it could lead the U.S. to invest in waste management infrastructure.

“The equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans every minute of every day, all year long,” Thiermann said.

He believes that plastic waste is currently one of the world’s most frightening issues. Thiermann said that repurposing plastic and reducing demand is a conversation that everyone needs to partake in.  

“When I come up from bad wipeout, the only thing that keeps me coming back for more is that I am more curious about the ocean than I am afraid of it,” Thiermann said. “In those lonely moments under water, there is no faking it, that is when I find out who I really am. Nature can provide us with the most honest reflection of ourselves, so when you fight for nature, you fight for yourselves.”