Changing of the environmental guard: Santa Cruz anti-plastics crusaders hand keys over to the next wave
Tim Goncharoff of the county zero waste program and Katherine O’Dea of Save Our Shores, longtime allies in a fight against single-use plastics that has affected policy well beyond Santa Cruz, are both moving on to the next chapter.
Two fixtures of Santa Cruz County’s environmental scene are set to retire in the next few months: Tim Goncharoff, manager of Santa Cruz County’s Zero Waste programs, will end his tenure on July 16; Katherine O’Dea, executive director of Save Our Shores, will step down at the end of September.
The departure of the two leaders represents a significant changing of the local environmental guard. Together and separately, the longtime environmentalists have led significant policy battles against plastic bags, hotel toiletries and other single-use plastics that have reverberated well beyond Santa Cruz County.
“Their local work shows that you can set state and national policies through the work of this community,” county supervisor Zach Friend wrote in an email. “Much of this work has been replicated across the state and country and many companies have taken the lead from their work to ban single-use plastics or alter practices.”
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But now, they’ve both decided it’s time to step down and give way to the next wave of leaders as they face issues including climate change and a lack of diversity in the environmental movement.
“Going through the last year with COVID, and how many restrictions were put on our lives and how difficult things became, it just made me realize that life is too short to keep postponing the next adventure,” O’Dea said.
Goncharoff said age is a factor in his retirement — he’s 66 — and the time was right for him personally and professionally.
Goncharoff and O’Dea represent very different backgrounds: Goncharoff has been doing environmental work and activism in Santa Cruz for over 40 years, since he moved here to attend UCSC in 1977. O’Dea joined Save Our Shores after a career in conservation and advising corporations on sustainability and creating circular economies. Over their tenures, each has left their mark, not just in Santa Cruz but on policy nationwide.
The announcements come at a time of significant turnover in Santa Cruz’s active environmental scene. Two other environmental leaders — Stephen Slade, executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and Rachel Kippen, director of the O’Neill Sea Odyssey — are also stepping down. Slade is retiring, while Kippen resigned citing “institutional racism, misogyny and privilege” that she said the Odyssey’s leadership was unwilling to confront.
Goncharoff: Leading the nation from Santa Cruz
Goncharoff has worked in the county’s zero waste management program since 2007, and said he’s gratified to see that things he was working for years ago — which seemed radical at the time — are now commonplace.
Goncharoff cited the community’s green mindset for making it possible for him and his colleagues to push the limits.
“Just about everybody here is an environmentalist of one stripe or another, including the people who run the businesses and the people who run for public office,” he said. “So, when we have an idea for something new, the reception tends to be much more positive here than it might be most other places.”
He said some of the things he looks back on with satisfaction, such as bans on plastic bags and styrofoam, “almost seem mundane now,” because so many other municipalities eventually followed suit.
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“The accomplishment locally is very satisfying, but even more so seeing other places found it noteworthy and worthy of emulation,” Goncharoff said. “That became a pattern — we were often the first or one of the first to do things, and then they would be quickly picked up by other places.”
O’Dea: ‘If not Santa Cruz, where?’
O’Dea moved to Santa Cruz from Rhode Island in 2015 to take the helm of Save Our Shores, a local nonprofit that works to preserve and protect the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Among her many accomplishments as executive director was helping to end sand mining at the Cemex mine in Marina. But O’Dea is perhaps best known for Save Our Shores’ charge against single-use plastics, an effort that involved working closely with Goncharoff.
She was introduced to Goncharoff, who shared her passion for reducing plastic waste, soon after her arrival, and he immediately became her “go-to person,” she said. They would often meet for coffee downtown to brainstorm, and dreamed up what Save Our Shores later called the “sinister six”: six ubiquitous types of plastic waste. The list included single-use plastic water bottles, microfiber pollution (from clothes), contact lenses, balloons, single-use coffee pods and single-use toiletry bottles (the kind used at hotels).
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O’Dea and Goncharoff shared the “sinister six” with the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, and Friend “really perked up around the toiletry issue,” O’Dea said. O’Dea, Goncharoff and their colleagues had calculated that hotels would actually save money by eliminating single-use toiletries and replacing them with refillable ones. Friend “got it that it was kind of a no-brainer,” O’Dea said, “and we got that done in record speed, just a couple of months after we dreamed up the idea of let’s try and eliminate these little plastic nuisance things from our life and our community.”
The board of supervisors banned single-use hotel toiletries in Santa Cruz County in November 2018, with the measure taking effect at the end of last year. A statewide ban followed in 2019, to take effect in 2023.
O’Dea said she’s had the same experience as Goncharoff: Groundbreaking environmental ordinances can pass in Santa Cruz that would seem impossible elsewhere.
“When it comes to different kinds of environmental actions, people will often say, ‘If not in Santa Cruz, where?’” O’Dea said. “I think there’s something to that — I think we’ve been a pioneer, on a number of things, and willing to go a bit further and faster than some other areas in the state and certainly other areas of the country.”
Changing of the guard ... and making it more inclusive
As they face the next chapters of their own lives, O’Dea and Goncharoff acknowledge that there is still plenty of work for the next generation of environmentalists in Santa Cruz County.
O’Dea is hopeful that organizations like Save Our Shores and others will continue to work to diversify their staffs and the environmental movement in general. She said that is one of the core goals of the educational outreach Save Our Shores does in underserved schools and other communities.
“There’s not a long history of people other than privileged whites going into environmental careers, especially in the nonprofit sector,” O’Dea said.
Increasing the diversity of the Save Our Shores staff and board members was one of the first major issues she tried to address, and she said “we’ve made some progress there, [but] we have more progress to make.
She added that they are “internally having more conversations, we’ve made a commitment to that diversity,” but they need to “further ramp up action in that area.”
“The environmental movement has for a long time been dominated by pretty prosperous, educated white people, not exclusively but pretty dominantly,” Goncharoff said, conceding that this is certainly true in Santa Cruz. He said it is a serious limitation of the movement.
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“There’s only so much you can do when you’re only dealing with a portion of the population, especially a portion that is shrinking, and when so many of the impacts of environmental issues fall more heavily on those disadvantaged communities that are less represented and less involved,” he said. “That’s got to be a major focus going forward.”
The other existential crises that motivates both of their work, and will be only more pressing for their successors, is climate change.
“I talk a lot with colleagues who work for other counties or cities,” Goncharoff said, “and a very common response when you talk about climate change is a kind of nervous chuckle, and, ‘Well, you know, I’ll be retired or dead by then, it’ll be somebody else’s problem.’ It’s kind of an excuse for not dealing with it.”
He says his colleagues, especially the older ones, sometimes avoid the issue because climate change is a hard problem to solve, particularly on a local level.
“It’s not something you can address with a little money or a nice little program, it means really rethinking everything we do,” he said. “My hope is that we’re going to see a lot more progress on [climate] as the younger generation comes up and puts that front and center,” he said.