Talking Trash

Plastic trash sullies a beautiful tropical beach

TRENT HODGES ’09 (BA) IS ON A MISSION TO REDUCE OCEAN PLASTIC POLLUTION

Leave it to Trent Hodges ‘09 (BA) to find the best surf breaks in Idaho.

Born in Los Angeles and introduced to the sport by his uncle — a surfboard shaper in Manhattan Beach — Hodges and his brother had to improvise when the family moved to the inland Northwest when the boys were young.

“We’d take surfboards to rivers and paddle them around,” Hodges says. “There are standing waves in a lot of the rivers in Idaho because of the interactions between the rivers and the current through the mountains. So we’d try to surf those river waves.”

The experience gave Hodges more than an aptitude for alpine surfing. He developed a deeper relationship — while also emerging as an environmental activist — with wild waters, including Redfish Lake, Idaho, where sockeye salmon swim more than 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean to spawn.

The sublimity of the salmon run is tempered by a sobering reality: microplastics — pieces less than 5 millimeters, or about the size of a sesame seed — not only pack the fish’s guts, but they’ve also pushed their way into their flesh, according to research at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.

Plastic is the most common marine debris found in the world’s oceans and other American waterways and lakes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports. While sunlight breaks it down, no natural process causes it to biodegrade.

For Hodges, plastics pollution was a personal call to action. After graduating from USD with a degree in environmental studies, he joined the Peace Corps, where from 2010–12 he worked to support sustainable tourism in Guatemala. One of his efforts included collecting 5,000 discarded plastic bottles from a beach, converting the garbage into “ecobricks,” bottles packed with other used plastics that can then be used as building blocks.

Hodges’ efforts yielded ecobricks that were used to build a school and a headquarters for local fishermen. “That experience in Central America has certainly informed where I am now,” he says. He did manage to surf in his free time, but “the waves in Guatemala are kind of brutal — like very violent beach breaks.”

Hodges went on to work as the plastic pollution manager for the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, a San Clemente, California-based grassroots organization dedicated to “the protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean, waves and beaches.”

At the foundation, Hodges helped lead some 52 plastic pollution-related campaigns, including successfully encouraging San Francisco to ban single-use plastic straws. In 2019, the entire state went “strawless,” only providing the sipping implements to diners when it was requested.

Much of the foundation’s victories were built on community outreach by Hodges and colleagues. They also pushed for stronger federal leadership through passage of the Save Our Seas Act. The act, which President Donald Trump signed in 2018, reauthorizes NOAA’s Marine Debris Program through 2022 and provides $10 million per year to cut debris through research and prevention programs.

Recent research on the problem reveals troubling trends.

“There are more studies coming out showing that plastic is in our own guts,” Hodges says. “We are consuming plastic by eating sea life, drinking water or just breathing air. It’s become as much of a public health issue as it is an environmental issue.”

The average American eats and inhales more than 70,000 plastic particles annually, according to a study published in 2019 in the Environmental Science & Technology journal.

Nonetheless, Hodges is optimistic. “The reason that I’m an optimist is because I have the amazing opportunity to travel all over and see the ways that local communities and grassroots organizations are reacting and organizing,” he says.

Hodges enrolled at USD because of its proximity to the ocean, and for the excellence of the university’s environmental studies program. “You learn firsthand the impacts that are being felt in the ocean on the coastline, and seeing it all the time got me motivated to dedicate my professional pursuits to working on these issues,” he says. “Even though it was a really small program at USD, the quality was really high and it attracted some amazing talent. It definitely made a huge impact on me.”

Hodges was particularly influenced by Associate Professor of Environmental and Ocean Sciences Michel Boudrias, whose classes include interdisciplinary coastal environmental science. “He was such a great mentor for me, and an amazing scientist,” he says. “He steered me in the direction that I needed to go, and I feel very grateful for that.”

These days, Hodges is living in Santa Cruz, near his beloved Pacific Ocean. In May of 2019, he joined Save the Waves, located in nearby Davenport, where he is conservation programs manager. While the organization does not have a singular plastic prevention program, “everything that we do includes some element of working to keep plastic out of the ocean,” he says.

In addition to speaking out against plastics, he’s working with Save the Waves to protect coastlines from overdevelopment, which can cause erosion. That, in turn, can harm “surf ecosystems.”

The same water fouled with mostly invisible microplastics brings Hodges the solace to fight another day, as he glides across breakers atop his board.

“You’re immersed in the natural world,” he says. “Your focus and your attention feels acute, your senses feel really heightened. In today’s world, when there’s so many distractions, surfing keeps you focused on being outside and noticing the ecosystem that’s around you.” — Andrew Faught

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