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Picking up the pieces: Why a former teacher dedicates herself to fighting single-use plastics

Emily Whang

Catherine Uden wakes up every morning to drive about two miles from her home in Hollywood, Florida to the beach. She takes her standup paddleboard with her and looks for plastics in the ocean all around her.

Uden’s hawk-like eyes pierce the water looking for any trash she can pick up on her paddleboard or on foot. She finds things like a Walmart plastic bag, half of a plastic jug with a fish stuck inside, nets, plastic cups and a lot more bags.

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Elliot Rodriguez
Catherine Uden shows some of the plastic bits and trash she finds on her paddleboard outings.

Because plastics are so commonly used and traveled with, like utensils and takeout containers, people bring them to the beach but don’t always throw them in the garbage. They end up in the ocean.

Elliot Rodriguez
Catherine Uden looks out at the ocean she works hard to protect.

“While I was a teacher, I started stand-up paddling … mainly in the Fort Lauderdale intracoastal,” she said. “I couldn’t get very far paddling because I felt the need to pick it up and put the garbage on board. And it felt like every paddle I’d have a mountain of garbage on my paddleboard.”

Uden also looks along the shore in Hollywood Beach, where she finds things like bottle caps, a child’s shovel and straws. They don’t only pollute and seriously harm marine life, they also contribute to climate change.

Plastic is made from fossil fuels like oil and gas, adding to the already abundant greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. This is a big worry for Uden, who is the South Florida Field Representative with Oceana, an international non-profit ocean conservation organization that focuses on influencing policies at the local and national level to preserve the oceans.

“Eventually you start wondering … what more can I do on a larger scale?” she said.

Uden spent 15 years as a teacher with Broward County Public Schools before joining Oceana.

The problem is not just on the beach. Plastic affects climate change at each stage of its life cycle. According to Oceana, the greenhouse gasses escape during extraction and refining of fossil fuels. Then a lot of energy gets used to actually produce a plastic bottle, for example. And even more emissions are released when plastic gets transported from a plant to a store and again from the store to someone’s home.

Elliot Rodriguez
Getting down to her knees, Catherine Uden adds more plastic to the collection of materials occupying her left hand.

“If plastic was a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses,” Uden says.

Uden wanted to get involved in policy, too. She supported a push to get elected officials in Hollywood to enforce an old ordinance that prohibits plastics and styrofoam from being served with food east of the Intracoastal Waterway; in 2018, the City of Hollywood banned the use of containers that are not biodegradable.

“When you look at so much plastic that’s avoidable, it’s very frustrating,” she said. “I wish more people would walk the shoreline and see what we’re doing to the planet. That’s how I got into my activism.”

Her passion for education extends beyond the classroom, which is why Uden left the concrete walls to have a more active role in her passion for climate control.

“We are already having major issues with sunny day flooding, with king tide flooding and when you look at the sea level rise projections maps… you can see that it’s going to be a huge problem.”

Elliot Rodriguez
Catherine Uden stands on the shoreline where she frequently visits, holding plastic she picked up from the sand.

Uden uses her own grocery bags and reusable water bottles. Uden even gave an anecdote about one of her son’s going to his middle school dance. She said he really wanted a snow cone but didn’t end up getting it because it was in a styrofoam cup.

“My kids used to pick up plastic and say ‘look mom, I just saved a sea turtle,’ so every piece of plastic is important. But it makes me angry because I don’t want to be a maid for the plastic industry.”

Uden stresses the importance of federal policy on single-use plastics, but encourages Florida residents to consider the importance of work at the local level, such as doing beach cleanups and reaching city and county elected officials.

“Realize your voice is important,” Uden said.

The story originally appeared on the NextGenRadio 2022 Florida Newsroom website.