Data from San Diego Beach Cleanups

San Diego Coastkeeper and the Surfrider Foundation San Diego County Chapter partner each year to conduct a series of public beach cleanups, averaging four per month, in order to address the issue of trash in our oceans and on our beaches. In addition to these cleanups, both organizations also host special cleanup events and empower individual volunteers to host their own. These events have removed more than 81,826 pounds of trash from our beaches and waterways since 2007.

In 2016, the program maintained a lot of the momentum of 2015, seeing a slight decrease in volunteerism but a near equal total weight of trash removed. The total item count decreased slightly from last year, with corresponding decreases in specific items of interest, such as cigarette butts. This year, 6,568 volunteers removed 187,231 items of trash, weighing 9,502 pounds total, from along our coastline. In 2015, 7,360 volunteers removed 197,788 items of trash, weighing 9,825 pounds total. While we applaud the increases pounds per volunteer effort this year and are heartened to see decreases in certain trash types, we are still troubled by the amount of debris being collected overall.

La Jolla Shores was the cleanest beach in San Diego County in 2016 with.42 pounds of trash found per person. The dubious award for the dirtiest beach went to Sunset Cliffs, with a staggering average of 5.67 pounds of trash removed per volunteer in 2016. Sunset Cliffs replaced 2015’s dirtiest beach Fiesta Island. This year, Fiesta Island moved down to fourth place on our list with 3.21 pounds per volunteer. The beach with the highest overall total pounds of debris removed was Oceanside Pier, with 1,018 pounds cleaned up at that site in 2016. We applaud Oceanside volunteers for their hard work, dedication, and commitment to attending frequent cleanups at this site.

Most Trash Per Volunteer Effort

Types of Items Removed in 2016

48% of debris collected was plastic.
The percent of plastic found in the total items collected increased five points this year. This count, however, does not include cigarette butts, which contain a plastic foam filter. Including cigarette butts, that percentage jumps to 81 percent. Plastics are particularly damaging to the marine environment, as they do not biodegrade, and are easily ingested by wildlife. Many of the plastics collected were pieces less than one inch in diameter, and much of it was non-recyclable expanded polystyrene foam, or Styrofoam®.

10,557 fewer items were collected in 2016 than 2015.
2016 saw a slight decrease in the total number of items removed, likely due in part to the slight decrease in volunteers collecting beach trash compared to last year. Item counts include trash of many sizes, from the tiniest shards of plastic food wrappers, to the largest discarded comforters or crates, and everything in between. The amount of trash on our beaches continues to be staggering, and there is plenty of trash for volunteers to find.

Cigarette butts topped the list in 2016.
Yet again, cigarettes and cigarette butts were the most prevalent type of debris found at our beach cleanups. In 2015, volunteers removed 79,083 cigarette butts from our beaches. This year, that number dropped to 59,144, which is definitely the direction we want to see that number trending. However, even with a 25% decrease in the number collected, cigarette butts are still far and away the most common thing we pick up. Littered butts continue to be a major concern for the health of San Diego County beaches. Cigarette butts 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 need not be dropped directly at the beach in order to find its way there eventually.

Intact plastic bags continue to be one of the less common items.
The total number of fully intact plastic bags found was 4,302, representing just 2% of total items removed. This continues the trend of slight but consistent decreases in bag totals. In 2015, volunteers removed 4,552 bags, which was also 2% of total items. In 2014, volunteers removed 5,489 bags representing 3% of the total items collected. This trend may indicate a decrease in the use of plastic bags, the success of regional bag bans, or an increase in recycling or proper disposal. This number may also reflect the possibility that bags, being very light and mobile, do not tend to stay on flat surfaces such as a sandy beaches for long before moving into the water. Bags are a far more common item in canyon and riverbed cleanups, where they tend to get tangled on rocks or vegetation. An additional reason we may not be seeing as many plastic bags on our beaches over the past few years could be the result of ongoing drought conditions. The reduced rainfall and low water flows may not be enough to push the bags out of the canyons and streamside vegetation. Due to their disproportionately dangerous impacts on marine wildlife, limiting plastic bags should continue to be encouraged and enacted. It should also be noted that the thin nature of plastic bags mean they are easily broken down into smaller pieces, and these small pieces would be counted as other plastics. It is likely that plastic bags are a larger environmental problem than our stats are showing. We are curious to see how the recently-passed statewide single-use plastic bag ban will impact these numbers moving forward, and hope to see plastic bags become a rarity on our beaches, in our canyons, and in our ocean.

Top 3 items of concern:  

  • Cigarette Butts (59,144)
  • Plastic Foam (19,680)
  • All Other Plastic Debris (69,635)

The Usual 
In addition to collecting data on common beach debris such as cigarette butts, plastic foam, and water bottles, volunteers are also asked to note any “unusual items” they find during the course of the cleanup. Over the years we have noticed some “unusual” items documented so frequently that they have ceased to be a surprise, and are in fact relatively common. Our top three unusual items in 2016 were consistent with those in years past: condoms, tampons, and glow sticks. While we can only guess at the reasons for the prevalence of the first two, glow sticks are frequently used in night fishing as a fish aggregation device, and are being discarded or littered after use.