Catherine Uden had always loved the ocean. But the first time she got out on a stand-up paddleboard, she knew she had a new favorite mode of transportation.
“It’s the love of my life,” she says of paddleboarding. “I just took to it really, really quickly. I wanted to be on the water all the time.”
One day early on, she went to a SUP race, largely out of curiosity.
“I never was one of these athletic, competitive people,” she says. “I went to a race just wanting to meet other people who paddle.”
But to her surprise, she raced well. She began racing more competitively and getting noticed. Eventually a paddleboard company reached out. As in other sports such as surfing or skateboarding, stand-up paddleboarders who reach a certain level sometimes get sponsorship from one of the companies that makes the boards. Today, Uden is sponsored by Boga Paddle and Surf. In fact, they sponsor everybody in her house.
“It snowballed into sponsoring my entire family, my kids and my husband,” she says.
“We have different people we work with for different reasons, whether they be racers or professional yogis or just people who are just good spirited towards the nature of our brand, which is someone like Cat,” Boga’s Dave Meyler says. “She just exemplifies as an individual the kind of company we like to be.”
Over the years, she’s taken her SUP out in races and on her own in water close to home and far away, from Marco Island to Maui. She’s also become known as something of an SUP activist. Earlier this summer, she and others from the Broward chapter of the Surfrider Foundation convinced the City of Hollywood to relax what had been the most stringent anti-SUP restrictions in Broward. If you’ve heard of Uden, it’s possibly because of that.
But if you’ve heard of her, it’s also likely because of the work she got into when she got s SUP’s-eye view of what exists in South Florida waterways.
When she paddled in the Intracoastal, she’d scoop trash and wind up with a mountain of it on her board. Meanwhile in her day job as an elementary school teacher, she’d teach stewardship and about things like recycling. Then she’d see the videos that go around of ocean animals tangled in plastics, or of great floes of garbage floating out at sea. Over time, she got more and more involved. Today, if you’ve heard of Cat Uden, it’s because she’s mad about what’s happening to the ocean, and she’s doing something about it.
Breaking the Plastic Habit
Plastics never go away. A detail that was for many years a selling point – plastic is indestructible! – has become its great problem as it clogs up landfills and is sent around the world from rich to poor countries that are increasingly saying, “No thanks.” And of course, often, it just ends up in our oceans.
A big part of a new plastics campaign from Oceana, the international ocean advocacy and conservation group for whom Uden now works, is the idea that recycling alone is not the answer. You have to lessen plastic use at the source.
“It really needs to be reduced,” Uden says, citing the increasing unwillingness of countries such as China and Malaysia to take the overwhelming amount of plastic that rich western countries “recycle” by shipping it overseas. “We obviously are not handling our waste properly.”
She’s amazed when she sees people showing up at environmental events with plastic bottles.
“We have to use fossil fuels to produce this,” she says of items like bottles. “You can’t be against drilling for more fossil fuels and still using plastics.”
She typically carries bamboo utensils so she doesn’t have to use one-use, throwaway plastic ones. She hasn’t used a plastic bag at the grocery store in 10 years. If she forgets her bag, she punishes herself with loose groceries. “I try to live the way I ask others to,” she says.
It’s not always fun. At a recent music festival, she found some food she wanted but when she got to the front, she saw it was being served in a foam container. She asked if they had anything else; they didn’t, so she left. She found a place with no foam; it wasn’t her first choice for food, but it’s what she had.
“I want the people to know that if you serve in these things, you’re going to lose my money,” she says.
It’s important, Uden says, to “find ways to show businesses that they can be cost-effective, environmentally friendly and not cost them money.
“When I travel to a new place, I try to find an ocean-friendly restaurant so that I can support them. And in my review, I will mention that I specifically went there because they are an ocean-friendly restaurant.”
To that end, at Surfrider she started an ocean-friendly restaurants program – you can go on the website and find places that have given up plastics and comply with the organization’s “ocean-friendly” guidelines.
One place that has got on board with the guidelines – so much so that the local-legend owner even did a quick video with Uden explaining the joys of going plastic-free – is the World Famous Parrot Lounge. The bar just off A1A and Sunrise Boulevard is one of Fort Lauderdale’s few remaining establishments from the spring break heyday and, perhaps, not the first place that would spring to mind when considering spots that would have an enlightened outlook on ocean preservation. But get owner Tim Schiavone talking on the subject and you’ll soon be put straight. The man who has lived in and owned a bar in the city for more than four decades says he saw the videos about ocean pollution and what it does to sea life. One day, he’d simply had enough.
“I woke up one morning and thought, we’re not going to deal with any more plastic,” he says. “I went in and told the staff, throw out all the plastic. Not just the straws. For some reason, people keep talking about straws. But it makes no sense getting rid of plastic straws if you still have a plastic cup.”
Figuring out how to get all paper products into the restaurant took a bit of research, but it was doable. Some products were more expensive, but others were less. For Schiavone, it was a no-brainer.
“Businesses are going to sell you whatever you want,” he says. “If nobody’s asking for paper products, nobody’s going to sell it.
“Everything we have now is paper. It’s not that hard to find.”
Soon he had teamed up with Uden and Surfrider. Today, the bar also hosts beach cleanups and is looking to see what else they can do. “We’ll keep pushing and pushing. This is just the beginning,” Schiavone says.
“Once you educate people – and that’s what you have to do – they see what you’re doing. The majority by far, they like it. People want to do things, they want to be involved, they just can’t take that first step.”
For Uden the former elementary school teacher, education is also a crucial part of protecting the oceans – and preferably, it should happen at some point before people are old enough to hang out in bars.
“My personal feeling is that there should be environmental education starting in kindergarten,” she says. “It’s important that kids know how to take care of the planet they live on.”
At Sterling Elementary School in Hollywood, she taught recycling. Later at Westwood Heights Elementary in southwest Fort Lauderdale, she would take students around the school, making sure recycling was collected, and that it was the proper, recyclable trash that was being collected.
“It takes education,” she says, “as well as sticking to it.”
Education is still a big part of Uden’s working life, though not in the same way it used to be. After working as a Broward schools teacher for 15 years while also volunteering for the Broward Surfrider chapter, she recently made fighting for the oceans a full-time job. Uden now works as the Southeast Florida campaign organizer for Oceana. She still volunteers for Surfrider – and even though she’s not in the classroom anymore, she still spends plenty of time teaching.
Surfrider, she says, is “really super-localized” while Oceana deals with bigger national and international policy issues – although it also has a strong local presence.
“Oceana is really federal,” Uden says, citing the organization’s work against offshore drilling and the killing of sharks for their fins. “They are starting a plastics campaign. On a federal level, to work on plastics right now is really difficult. It’s probably better to work at the state and the local level on plastics.”
It’s a contrast to Surfrider, which tends to deal more with issues that are particularly important to people who use the beach and ocean. Surfrider fights for beach access and against privatization. That dovetailed nicely with Uden’s desire to see less restrictive laws for SUPs.
“I think a lot of the laws were just made so long ago that they just didn’t take standup paddling into account at all,” she says.
For Uden, all the work makes sense together. She wants an ocean that’s clean and free to use. Today when she exercises her newly expanded rights to paddleboard off Hollywood Beach, she’s not just taking part in the sport she loves, she’s reminding herself of the mission.
“It connects me to the work that I’m doing,” she says. “Now with this I can get out and see what I’m protecting.”
This Memorial Day, Uden took her SUP to Oleta River State Park in North Miami. Inland from Haulover Beach, the sprawling park is a kind of Miami-Dade equivalent of Hugh Taylor Birch State Park – an oasis of maritime hammock and undeveloped Old Florida in the midst of the condo zone. A popular weekend spot, it offers lots of opportunity for paddleboarding and other watersports.
It also offers lots of opportunity for doing the wrong thing. On Memorial Day weekend, Uden found mountains of trash. She did what she always does and scooped as she paddled, leaving with a cooler filled with garbage.
Of course at this point, there’s nobody who is unaware of the fact that littering is bad. Trash-dumping jerks will always exist; now, Uden thinks more about the systems that allow all that potential litter to exist in the first place.
“There’s always going to be people who don’t care,” she says.
“What we have to do is reduce it at the source.”
Oceana’s new anti-plastics campaign urges consumers to “break free from plastic.” The campaign includes information aimed at governments, businesses and individuals. For individuals, actions include:
- No longer drinking from single-use plastic water bottles
- Using reusable bags made from recycled or biodegradable material when shopping
- Not using polystyrene cups
- Advocating for local laws banning single-use plastic bags
According to Oceana, actions like these – as well as larger-scale action from governments and corporations – are needed because one action that’s long been seen as a solution just isn’t cutting it.
“Unfortunately, one of the most popular solutions to plastic pollution falls far too short,” an Oceana report says. “A meager 9 percent of all the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled. Current projections show that increased plastic production will outpace recycling, resulting in more plastic in the ocean. Recycling alone is not enough to solve the plastics crisis. To stop plastic from entering our oceans, we must reduce the amount of single-use plastic being produced at the source. We must demand that companies reduce the amount of plastic they are putting into the supply chain and find alternative ways to package and deliver their products. Without immediate changes to the way we use and abuse plastics, the total amount of plastic waste generated is expected to double by 2025.”