Water conservation, one kid at a time

Written by Sandra J. Lebron
Sandra and sea urchin

My drawing of an “animal affected by climate change” for a lesson. As sea urchin, of course!

Off to a swell start

Back in 2013, I landed myself a really swell job. At San Diego Coastkeeper, Project SWELL is the name of our K-6th environmental curriculum. SWELL stands for “Stewardship: Water Education for Lifelong Leadership.” It’s a fitting title. Through Project SWELL, Coastkeeper teaches kids about water conservation, climate science, and the environmental issues specific to their communities.

I grew up in Puerto Rico and studied marine science, but it was in grad school as I was working for Sea Grant as a marine educator that I found my passion – teaching about environmental science, ocean life, and water conservation. Today, I work with an amazing nonprofit that protects not only the ocean itself, but the rivers, creeks, and rainfall that flow through our communities and meet the ocean at the coast — isn’t that swell?

Kids are the key

Of course, I’ve learned some important lessons along the way. After spending countless hours in classrooms and reading students’ answers to the pre-lesson and post-lesson surveys they had received, we realized kids are eager and enthusiastic to help save our Earth, and willing to do what it takes to make a real difference. Learning is the critical the first step to a more aware and engaged generation, but empowering a 10-year-old to take a real-life action that helps conserve water and energy is what makes my job as an educator so fulfilling.

Water and Climate Stewards

With this in mind, San Diego Coastkeeper recently launched a new project called Water and Climate Stewards of San Diego Bay. Through this program, we educate kids on the importance of making conscious decisions about the resources they consume. One example we use is the lifecycle of the humble straw to demonstrate how harmful single-use plastics can be when discarded. Kids are shocked to hear how much  water and energy it takes to produce one straw, only for it to be used once and tossed, where it spends the rest of its days taking up space in a landfill. Improperly discarded, it may even become a fatal snack for a marine creature. It’s not just the longevity of plastic that startling, but the production as well. Did you know that it takes 22 gallons of water to make even one pound of plastic? It can take twice as much water to manufacture a plastic water bottle than the amount of water the bottle itself can hold. With some informed choices about what we buy and consume, water conservation can happen in surprising places. 

Water waste and marine debris are a big problems for an elementary school student to tackle, but after one of our engaging and empowering lessons, students come away excited to implement the “Four R’s” into their daily lives, instead of fearful about what their future holds. The mantra is — REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE.

One step (or straw) at a time

As Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Or, in this case, save it. The ultimate goal of our education programs is to build the next generation of water and climate stewards, one kid, one teacher, one parent and one fewer plastic item at a time. Water conservation at home can start with one empowered, passionate kid saying no to one plastic straw. And it can grow from there!

Turning Marine Debris into Art

Written by Matt O'Malley

Into the Current by Janis Selby Jones

This sculpture on display in front of The Wave Waterpark in Vista is made from trash removed from beaches around the world. Into the Current, is created by Janis Selby Jones, a teacher, artist and passionate San Diego Coastkeeper volunteer, with help from beach cleanup volunteers from around the world. 

The sculpture depicts the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vortex in the Pacific Ocean where billions of pieces of plastic debris are collected by ocean currents in a giant mass. The public art serves to remind us of the plastic poisoning our ocean and that we can all make a difference. Janis says the three outer sections—or fins— represent the movement of the ocean’s currents. The spiral and circle at the center signify the swirling of marine debris as it moves toward our ocean’s “trash vortex.”

To learn more about this piece and her future art projects, visit Janis’ blog, Shoresweep.

Dispatches from the field – Intern Jessica reports back

Written by Kristin Kuhn

Coastkeeper is lucky to be home to some seriously wonderful interns. They are busy, active individuals, and are often on the forefront of much of the work we do in the community. Every once in a while, we manage to pin them down long enough for them to share some thoughts from the inside.

San Diego County is lucky in many respects. We are home to a long, rugged coastline, beautiful beaches, and ample sunshine. We use our beaches and parks as gathering places – we bring our kids and dogs and friends out to enjoy all that this region has to offer. We are also lucky here because, in large part, our community is one that cares about the health of our ocean.

As San Diego Coastkeeper beach cleanup intern, it continually amazes me how many San Diegans are willing to come out in droves on a Saturday morning to pick up trash for two hours along the coastline that we love. This act of service is a statement of care. We know we take more from the environment than we give back, and we make the time to do what we can anyway. I am often surprised at how busy I am at my internship. When I started, I was certainly not expecting such a continual stream of community members interested in cleaning beaches on their free time. Part of the reason I love my internship is because it restores my faith in the inherent goodness of the world on the days I wake up low on gratitude.

Last year, Coastkeeper and Surfrider volunteers removed over 9,500 pounds of trash from our beaches. Some of that trash was littered – either intentionally or unintentionally – on the beach itself. But much of it also came from our city’s streets and sidewalks. Debris from our city washes down our storm drains with every rainfall and heads out to sea. Collecting trash along the beach, before it gets into the ocean, is our last line of defense in preventing the ocean from taking on yet more marine debris.

One thing we are keeping our eye on this year is how rain has played a role in the amount of debris moving through our waterways and onto our beaches. The El Nino of two winters ago may have never materialized, but this past winter’s wet weather – coming on the heels of multi-year drought conditions – may yield interesting results for 2017’s end of year cleanup numbers. (Anecdotally, we saw quite a spike in pounds of trash gathered at cleanups early in this year. At one January cleanup at Fiesta Island, volunteers collected over 1,300 pound of trash in just under two hours.) Heavy rains, especially after long periods of dry weather, move a lot of built up debris and pollutants through our city. We are just glad we have incredible volunteers out there catching what they can of it before the ocean does.

It sometimes feels overwhelming and inconvenient to be aware of the problems in the world. It can make us feel small and ill-equipped. It is such a heartening experience to spend time around people doing their best to make a difference in the midst of their lives that already ask so much of them. It feels good to be a constructive part of a community and it makes us happy to care for the earth that can’t always defend itself. I am continually amazed by how many people choose to share their Saturday mornings with us. San Diegans love their city, their beaches, their coastline. The best part of all if it may be the gratitude each cleanup generates. Beachgoers thank volunteers for being out there, volunteers thank us for showing up with the supplies, and at Coastkeeper, we could not be more grateful to know we can count on our community to show up to do something that really, no one should like doing: picking up trash.

Published in Marine Debris

How We Use Trash to Make a Difference

Written by Kristin Kuhn

San Diego Coastkeeper brings together volunteers to keep our beaches clean for everyone to enjoy. But that’s only the beginning.  

Up to 80 percent of trash found in the ocean originated on land. That means it wasn’t dumped into the ocean intentionally, but ended up in the water after being improperly disposed of on land. Sadly, San Diego’s marine life is in danger of ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris. To make a lasting impact on the health of our ocean and marine life, we must work to keep trash on land from becoming marine debris in the first place.

That’s why San Diego Coastkeeper volunteers not only collect trash from beaches, they fill out a debris data card to record each piece of trash they find. We use this data from all our beach cleanups to analyze the state of San Diego beaches every year. Our cleanups are so much more than beach beautification activities – they are a way to prevent marine debris and participate in an ongoing study about the origins, quantities, and types of trash on our beaches.

San Diego Coastkeeper provides three ways to get involved with beach cleanups to combat marine debris in our region. First, we’ve teamed up with Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter to host twice-a-month public beach cleanups across San Diego County. We bring the supplies and anyone is welcome to join us for a two-hour cleanup. Second, our Sponsored Cleanup Program allows companies and organizations to provide a private cleanup event for their employees as both a team building activity and a way of enhancing their corporate stewardship. Finally, we encourage people to borrow our cleanup supplies when we are not using them through our Beach Cleanup in a Box program. We love empowering San Diegans to be good stewards of their coastal environment whenever they can, regardless of our cleanup schedule.

All these beach cleanups combined have led to the removal of over 72,325 pounds of trash from our beaches and waterways since 2007. In 2015, cigarettes and cigarette butts were once again the most prevalent type of debris found at our beach cleanups. Littered butts continue to be a major concern for the health of San Diego County beaches. The problem with cigarette butts is that they are non-biodegradable and leach toxins into the water, poisoning marine life. They also move with ease through the City’s stormwater system, meaning a cigarette butt dropped elsewhere can easily end up at the beach. Click here to read more about what we’ve learned from the latest beach cleanup data.

Published in Marine Debris

Meditations in Blue

Written by Kristin Kuhn

San Diego Coastkeeper member, Water Quality Monitor, and beach cleanup host extraordinaire Amanda Sousa is a water lover in the truest sense. When she sailed from Ensenada to Oahu, Amanda experienced just how wondrously huge our ocean is and how quickly we become small in its presence. And yet, despite all this vastness, there was one persistent and unwelcome visitor from which Amanda could not escape. In her own words, Amanda describes how these constant encounters impacted her. 

No land in sight. Still, there was plastic.

No land in sight. Still, there was plastic.

I recently had the opportunity to crew on a passage from Ensenada, Mexico to Oahu, Hawaii on a 44-ft Leopard Catamaran owned by my dad’s friends, Ian Steele and Sharon Lockhart. I jumped at the opportunity to do some blue water sailing; to hop on the trade winds, experience falling seas, sail wing on wing and live the adventure. On the water, I was absolutely struck by the sheer grandeur of the ocean, I felt so small compared to its vastness.

Day after day there was no sight of land, and yet day after day I saw plastic. We did not chart a course into the Northern Pacific Gyre and were not looking for plastic, but there it was every single day. Over 19 days of different wind speeds, different currents and small swells to large swells, it was always there.

The plastic came in all different sizes from small fragments to ghost nets tangled in a large blob.  There was plastic that looked as if it just blown in the water from my home in Pacific Beach, plastic that looked as if it made its way overboard and plastic that had been floating for what looked like years. I started to feel that the ocean was a whole lot smaller.

Amanda Sousa, San Diego Coastkeeper volunteer of the yearIt pains me that the beautiful ocean, in all it’s splendor, has been so polluted by our trash. This plastic did not fall from the sky and there is no excuse for it being 1,200 miles from shore other than the disregard of our impact to this world. 

The damage that has been done is so pervasive and ubiquitous. It was heartbreaking to witness right in front of my eyes. In the deepest parts of my heart I love the oceans, the streams, the lakes and the rivers; I love the animals that live and depend on these water bodies (including all of us); I love the plants that bloom and creep in these places. This passage has reinforced my love of the beauty of the ocean and has also strengthened my conviction that we need to realize our impact. We must take active steps to eliminate this ubiquitous plastic from our lives, our world and our wild places.

Amanda sporting her swimmable, fishable, drinkable t-shirtI am a clean water advocate, I am a volunteer and I am a supporter of San Diego Coastkeeper. Collectively, we need to put more energy toward our most precious resource. Now more than ever, we need to take a hard look inside and decide what we want in this world. I have decided I want fishable, swimmable, drinkable water; I want wild places; I want the ocean to be just blue; I want to be small in the ocean again.



Published in Marine Debris

Do beach cleanups do more than just clean beaches?

Written by Kristin Kuhn

Meet Monica, our beach cleanup intern-extraordinaire. She signed up with San Diego Coastkeeper to keep our waters swimmable, but discovered a new passion for volunteering itself. Enjoy her first blog below.

Monica InternIt might surprise you that clean beaches are not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the benefits of organizing beach cleanups. While the physical evidence of hundreds of pounds of trash is encouraging at the end of each cleanup, there’s so much more to feel great about. Rising early on a Saturday morning to be a part of a community of families, students, and avid beachgoers sparks thoughtful conversations and meaningful interactions accompanied by warm ocean breezes and the fleeting dance of dolphins in the waves.

Surfers dart past you towards the waves in a youthful jog as you assemble Coastkeeper’s signature blue easy-up gazebo, which in fact isn’t so easy after all. A kind stranger always offers a helping hand and you always accept. What follows is wave after wave of passionate people wanting to take action and make a difference in their community. People meet, share ideas and discuss politics all while getting outside and active on a weekend morning.

Only recently have I come to appreciate all the positive effects volunteer work has on a community and myself. Productively working together to better the community, particularly the environment, creates a positive feedback loop; a group of individuals working hard to improve their community benefits the community, the community becomes happier, which builds a stronger bond with their community and drives more to embrace volunteer work to make it even better.

Volunteer work has positive effects on individual volunteers as well. Working outside boosts physical, mental and social well-being. Working with your peers to create a stronger and more sustainable community focuses attention on local problems that directly affect the members of your neighborhood.

As the cleanup is winding down those same surfers emerge from the water, grinning from the adrenaline rush, and offer a smile or kind words for helping to keep our beaches clean. While they are not wrong, they are unaware of the bigger impact that has elapsed during their brief surf session. Beach cleanups do far more than just clean beaches.

Published in Marine Debris

How Trash in Our Ocean Impacts Humans

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

The ocean is the most beautiful, diverse and abundant ecosystem on the planet and covers over 71 percent of the world’s surface. It is so large that it has been divided into five oceanic divisions, all of which are connected.

San Diego is located just off the coast of the Pacific Ocean, which is the largest ocean on earth. It is roughly the same size as all the land on earth, put together.

However, there are many factors, which are putting our oceans at the brink of disaster and the biggest issue of all is, pollution. Pollution is the biggest killer of marine animals and plants, and it is not only caused by natural occurrences, it is also caused by man. Did you know that over eight billion tons of plastic is being dumped into the ocean, every year? Plastic has one of the most devastating effects on this ecosystem and is also affecting life on land.

Just off the coast of California, sits one of the largest ‘garbage islands’ on the planet. Known as the ‘North Pacific Gyre’ or the ‘Pacific Trash Vortex’, it is a made up of plastic, chemical sludge and other debris. This dangerous man-made island has been created by pollution that gets caught up in the strong currents, forming a floating island of trash. This trash can be mistaken as food by marine animals, which can then lead to a chain reaction, resulting in these fish or smaller animals being consumed by larger fish, inevitably ending up on our plates.

Pollution is damaging to the ocean and its inhabitants, it is also extremely dangerous for humans and if you would like to learn more about ocean pollution and how it can affect humans, then take a look at the fascinating infographic below, which will show you that one simple mistake such as not recycling your plastic properly, can lead to unimaginable damage to life on earth.  The infographic has been produced by a team from divein.com.

How ocean pollution affects humans How ocean pollution affects humans – Graphic by the team at DIVE.in

By Andrew Dilevics

Published in Marine Debris

Eleven Things We Learned at Beach Cleanups

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

Data – they aren’t just numbers. The data we collect every year during our beach cleanups include numbers, of course, but we also gather valuable anecdotal insights from seasoned volunteers and common misconceptions from newcomers. It’s easy to compile the numbers into graphs and statistics, which we share on our San Diego beach cleanup data webpage, but we also wanted to create a separate-than-science analysis of our beach cleanup finds this year. In that vein, we encourage your to read these eleven crazy things we learned at beach cleanups in 2014.


  1. Condoms and Tampons – The Usual Unusuals
    We can’t explain it. By far, condoms and tampons top the “unusual items” category tracked by our data-seeking volunteers. How and why do these used personal products find their way to our beaches? It’s San Diego’s great hygiene mystery.
  2. Baby, This Beach Doesn’t Look that Dirty
    It’s one of the most common things we hear volunteers say at the start of each San Diego County beach cleanup two hours later comes the inevitable surprise at the amount of trash they collected afterall. We know that what you can’t see can hurt you—and marine animals and the environment. Sadly, the majority of trash we collect is so small most beachgoers don’t immediately notice it; however, it poses a very large risk to wildlife because it is easy to ingest and hard to pick up.
  3. Butts are big—cigarette butts, that is.
    We removed over 75,000 cigarette butts from our coastal areas. That’s 3,750 packs of cigarettes worth of toxin-leaching, plastic foam pollution that harms water quality, fools marine animals and breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of trash, never disappearing.
  4. Cleaning up trash comes with warm fuzzy feelings
    Our 7,000 volunteers spent their Saturday mornings picking up trash. It doesn’t sound so glamorous on paper, but time and again they tell us how they love the experience and the learning, which couldn’t please us more.
  5. Speaking of which—You are the Solution
    In 2014, you provided 14,000 solution hours beautifying our beaches and restoring them to a healthier state. Want to continue that impact? Commit to using fewer single-use items, ensure trash is properly discarded and educate your friends on beach pollution solutions.
  6. The Great Trash Migration is Real
    If you don’t believe us, read number one again. Much of the trash that we pick up on our beaches didn’t get discarded there. It started somewhere inland and wind and rain carried it to a its resting destination. While you’re at it, reread number five, because you are the solution.
  7. Your Doctor May Surf
    This year, we found a stethoscope at one of our beach cleanups. Did your doctor lose hers?
  8. Where’s the Bag?
    In 2014 and 2013, fully intact, single-use plastic bags accounted for three percent of the trash we removed each year. Why is this interesting? It’s significantly lower than the number we removed in 2012. This may indicate a decrease in the use of plastic bags, the success of regional bag bans or an increase in recycling or proper disposal. But also, the thinness of plastic bags mean they are easily broken down into smaller pieces, and our volunteers would count these small pieces as other plastics. It is likely that plastic bags are a larger environmental problem than our stats are showing. We will track this trend as our statewide bag ban takes effect.
  9. Plastic is Pesky
    It’s the most common material we find, and it never biodegrades There is nothing more frustrating that reaching down to pick up a plastic cup off a beach or mudflat only to have it shatter like glass in your hand because it is so brittle from sitting out in the sun. Your littered plastic cup just became a thousand littered plastic fragments.
  10. It’s Not Just That Beach
    Don’t think your local, non-touristy beach is immune from trash build-up, unlike “those other” beaches. See point number two. Though they may look clean, every beach in San Diego County suffers from pollution. Sadly. There’s hope. Reread number five.
  11. Ew. Stinky Seaweed and Dead Birds
    Many people think anything that makes the beach less nice for humans, like stinky seaweed or dead birds, is trash. But these are natural parts of the lifecycles of a healthy ecosystem, so let’s keep them out of our trash bags and on the beaches where they belong. After all, a beach with seaweed is an indication that there is a kelp forest offshore!

What crazy things did you learn at beach cleanups this year? Comment below to tell us what we should add to our list.

Published in Marine Debris

This 12-Year-Old Knows What it Takes to Save the Planet

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper

This is a story about a 12-year-old girl from San Diego who loves surfing, art and making the world a better place. One day she contacted San Diego Coastkeeper to share her story, and what we heard was not only impressive, it is an inspiration.

Paige realized that there was a big problem the world faced – ocean pollution. She knew that much of our trash ended up in one of her favorite places, the ocean, making it dirty and unhealthy for the marine creatures that lived there. What she did next proves that anyone could make a positive impact when they take action. Starting with a recycling program at her school, we’re excited to see the impact her newest project will make.

Paige M water bottle braceletSMALLI asked our little ocean hero to share her story and this is what she told us:

Coastkeeper: What inspired you?

Paige M.: “My 4th grade teacher at Del Mar Pines School inspired me to start the recycling program. She asked if I could do one thing to make the world a better place, what would it be?”

CK: When did you start the project?

PM: “I started planning for the project in the spring of my 4th grade year but officially launched the recycling program the fall of my 5th grade year.”

CK: How many students participated in the recycling program?

PM: “Everyone at school – students and their families, staff and teachers – are welcome to participate. We host collection days on campus twice a month where families can bring their recyclable plastic drinking bottles from home. I also placed specially marked collection bins around campus that my committee and I check weekly.

CK: Why did you want to take on this project?

PM: “Our landfills only have limited space. Recycling helps take out a lot of unnecessary waste in the landfills. If we recycled every plastic bottle we used, we would keep two billion tons of plastic out of landfills. It’s also cool to see all the things that recycled bottles can become – like sleeping bags.”

Paige M  DMP recycling committeeSMALLPaige makes her moves

Paige started a recycling program to raise money for her school foundation. She created an education program and recruited a committee of schoolmates to help. In the fall of 6th grade, Paige designed a charm bracelet using the water bottle logo she created for her recycling program. She sold the bracelets and donated the money to water.org, a charity that produces safe drinking water in Africa, South Asia and Central America.

She also wrote and illustrated a short story called “Kayas Undersea Adventure.” The story is about a girl who goes surfing and gets transported to an underwater world that’s polluted. The surfer girl returns home and finds ways to encourage others to correct the pollution she had seen. Paige dedicated her book to San Diego Coastkeeper, because she thinks that our mission of keeping San Diego’s waters fishable, swimmable and drinkable is cool!

She thinks the best way to convince kids to make a difference is to hear it from other kids. Her parents are looking into publishing her story and donating the proceeds from sales to San Diego Coastkeeper. If you want to help just contact us.

Published in Marine Debris

A Bilingual Coastal Cleanup Day

Written by San Diego Coastkeeper


coastkeeper coastal cleanup dayA great Coastal Cleanup Day includes binational participation.

That’s why four of our LEAP students, six Community Advisory Council members, two staff and I spent the day at the border focusing on marine debris.

We joined WiLDCOAST for Coastal Cleanup Day at Border Field State Park for two hours. Afterwards, we went to the friendship garden between the two U.S. fences, where we met Tijuana Waterkeeper and Coastkeeper Community Council member Margarita Diaz across the fence. She brought a group of students from Mexico to meet our LEAP students and build friendships. We had a tour of the garden and did some work placing rocks. The participants also wrote wishes on rocks and placed them in the garden.

border-fence-san-diegoThe highlight of the trip was Sandra’s marine debris lesson. Sandra presented a bilingual hands-on lesson and discussion on marine debris to students on both sides of the fence. To me, the bilingual, bi-national nature of the event was spectacular. All of the participants I spoke to were very moved by the event (myself included).

We hope to continue coordinating such inspiring events for youth in our region. If you couldn’t be there, I encourage you to enjoy a few photos on our facebook page, courtesy of Community Council member Hector Valtierra.


Special thanks to Teva and their A Pair for a Foot program for providing funds to make this important day possible.

Published in Marine Debris