Foam Frenzy in the Tijuana River Valley

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There is a very short window of time each year in which dedicated volunteers can attempt to tackle the insurmountable accumulation of trash and debris in the Tijuana River near Imperial Beach.  It starts in September when nesting season ends for threatened birds such as the Least Bell's Vireo and the Light-footed clapper rail, and culminates with the start of the rainy season (typically, late October) when storms make the riverbed too muddy and polluted for volunteers to enter. Various environmental groups have partnered to create activities during Tijuana River Action Month (TRAM), involving thousands of volunteers in native planting events, lectures, workshops and cleanups over just five weekends.

For our contribution to the 2nd Annual Tijuana River Action Month, San Diego Coastkeeper teamed up with cleanup sponsor 101.1 KGB and TRAM coordinators of WiLDCOAST to continue focused cleanup of an accessible reach of the riverbank east of the bridge on Dairy Mart Rd. As a seasoned veteran of cleanups in San Diego beaches, parks, canyons, and rivers, I have coordinated volunteers removing literally tons of trash in one morning from highly impacted areas in Chollas Creek, the San Diego River and post-4th of July celebrations in marshmallow-ridden Ocean Beach. Yet I have seen nothing as shocking as the accumulation of plastic foam and plastics in the Tijuana River Valley.

In San Diego County, the Tijuana River is by far the most polluted and troubling waterway for environmental professionals to try to address. The overarching challenge is that the Tijuana River Watershed is shared by two countries with vastly different policies protecting water quality. For example, Mexico has no bottle bill to encourage recycling of plastic bottles like we have in California; and limited organized trash collection (let alone recycling) from remote shanty neighborhoods, often situated on steep hillsides leading directly to tributaries of the river. And although some infrastructure exists to help reduce the pollutant loads entering the beautiful Tijuana River National Estuarine Reserve, large storm systems bring thousands of gallons of sewage, toxins and trash downstream.

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About 70 volunteers at the October 15 cleanup started where volunteers the week before had left off and still managed to collect 1,340 lbs of debris. But ask any one of the volunteers how they spent their morning and its likely that their response will include the word Styrofoam. This river has layer upon layer of debris buried from different storms and sediment layers. We only approached the top layer - and even with an army of 200 people would not have collected every piece of foam from that 1.5 acre area.

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There were all types of foam. Styrofoam cups and plates, packaging material and lots of that hard brown foam from inside of mattresses and cushions. It was hard to decide whether to go for larger pieces or smaller pieces and there was not enough time or hands to hardly make a dent in what was out there. We used buckets, trash cans and wheelbarrows to avoid using plastic bags - and the entire cleanup was zero waste. We did our part to reduce our plastic footprint - but what about all the people upstream?  What will it take to spread the word about the environmental injustice and flow of plastic pollution from human hands to the sea?

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It seems all we can do is lead the way. Improving our daily consumption habits and encouraging others to go green will keep the movement going forward. Volunteers will continue to turn out in droves to help remove this toxic plastic from sensitive riparian habitat. And Coastkeeper is beginning an outreach campaign to San Diego restaurants for support of plastic foam reduction policies. Larger, more sweeping policies for trash reduction may encourage elected officials and agencies to prioritize funding for trash capture devices, rather than relying on scattered volunteer efforts and allowing the downstream transport and burial of this material in our waterways.

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"To myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
- Sir Isaac Newton

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