Last Saturday, I must have pulled at least 50 cigarette butts out of the sand south of Lifeguard Tower 27. Of course, I also found a busted fishing pole, plastic bottle caps, glass, paper, aluminum cans, water bottles, a toy soldier, Band Aids, lots of Styrofoam and part of a small dead shark.
To what did I owe this windfall? I was participating in California Coastal Cleanup Day, which dates back to 1984 and an original effort in Oregon that turned out 2,800 volunteers to pick up garbage on their coast. California admired that event, and the next year we had our own. The annual cleanups have continued, although I must confess that last week was my first time. It’s true. Somehow, I always found something else to do besides pick garbage up off the beach.
Did I enjoy myself? First, let’s be clear that this thing is no walk in the park, although technically, I believe it is. Everybody who participates has to sign a waiver that releases all the parties involved from any responsibility. Because it’s not their fault that beaches can be home to leftovers such as used condoms, dead animals, discarded weapons, and medical waste including syringes. You’re urged not to get involved with this stuff, and instead to notify authorities who have more experience with something like a possum that has OD’d and might be packing a gun.
You’re right; it’s not funny that our oceans and beaches are full of garbage. But that’s what events like last week’s Cleanup drive home. There were a lot of school kids involved, and while a certain level of awareness got them to the beach in the first place, nothing makes that awareness stick better than three hours of bending over to pick up coffee cup remnants and ice cream wrappers.
And filling those plastic collection bags with the found debris can be a slow process. The first hour, you often feel as though you’re struggling to determine nature’s waste from man’s. A bit of bird feather looks like cellophane, and the other way around. A group of seashell bits has something in it. It’s a cap from a bottle of Squirt soda. Then you find your first oddity… something like a hairbrush or part of a kitchen stove. And that’s when it hits you: Man, our crap is everywhere.
So to answer your question, yes, I did enjoy myself. I liked the opportunity it provided to spend a few hours focused on the fact that every single one of us leaves a trail of garbage just by living. And I wasn’t lonely. Early estimates from Heal the Bay claim that 9,501 volunteers at various LA County sites collected nearly 65,000 pounds of trash.
Participants are urged to inventory the garbage they pick up by means of a “data card” that asks a few basic questions about the material they found. It’s one of the few ways that waste on beaches is categorized at all. So that later on someone might, for example, use the number of cigarette butts found to build an argument to outlaw smoking on the beaches.
Wait, we did outlaw smoking at the beach. And what did I see Saturday as I was picking up cigarette butts? Tourists smoking. Did I call in a SWAT team? No, because Santa Monica doesn’t want to bust smokers; it wants to maintain its beaches as a place people go to escape the pressures and toxins of modern living. Way before a law that you shouldn’t smoke at the beach comes the idea that you shouldn’t smoke at the beach.
And that’s another reason I enjoyed myself on California Coastal Cleanup Day. Because it reminded me that there’s a great idea still quite alive and well in Southern California: That way before the convenience of disposal eating ware and plastic bottles and tubes of Pringles and single-serving Lunchables and yogurt tubs and foil wraps on Trail Mix bars and tampon inserters and six-pack webs and the little plastic pull strip that opens your orange juice…comes the idea that you don’t leave all that lying on the beach.