Another Year, Another Big Pile of Trash (and Data)

Oceanside_BCU_019A mantra has developed at San Diego Coastkeeper over the past few years: collecting data at beach and bay cleanups is almost as important as removing the trash from the environment. It’s become apparent that this litter and waste has major impacts on the ocean when it becomes marine debris, but we can’t communicate about the needs for source reduction or target cleanups to specific trash hotspots if we don’t have the number to back it up. That’s where our Annual Beach Cleanup Data Report comes in.

Through strong collaboration with the San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, Coastkeeper has made data collection at our joint beach cleanups a top priority since 2007. The information gained is important for directing our advocacy moves and target beaches, along with educating San Diegans about what types of trash are of greatest concern. We are also collecting baseline information for future accumulation, from general pollution issues to large scale natural events, like the predicted arrival of debris from the Japan Tsunami, and we note the most interesting items collected, such as the headless statue and dentures found in San Diego County at Coastal Cleanup Day.

And 2011 was an interesting year for volunteer coordinators, as volunteerism generally decreases when unemployment is high (see earlier post about reduced attendance to 2011’s California Coastal Cleanup Day). However, the 3,600 volunteers that did come out to our twice-monthly community events found plenty of work, removing 5,500 pounds of trash from our beaches and counting the tiniest pieces for our data set.

As in previous years, single-use plastic dominated the removal effort – with volunteers counting 104,000 pieces of plastic pollution and then sending it to the recycle bin or the dumpster. Of that, about 50% were toxic plastic foam cigarette butts, which increased again last year despite a slight decrease in 2010. The rest of the plastics include plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic lids, cups, straws and plastic food wrappers – which interestingly were the highest in Coronado City Beach (perhaps from tourists?).


StyrofoamTM, AKA plastic foam, was surprisingly high at 25,000 pieces in 2010, but dropped back down to about 12,500 in 2011, similar to 2009 levels. This may be because of a decrease in foam, but after witnessing firsthand the Foam Frenzy in the Tijuana River Valley, I am convinced that volunteers get frustrated and give up on counting every piece of foam when each team collects hundreds or even thousands in a cleanup. Coastkeeper is working with restaurants to reduce sources of StyrofoamTM waste, and in 2011 succeeded in working with the City of San Diego to ban purchases of StyrofoamTM and plastic water bottles with government funds.


All this trash does not originate from beach visitors and residents. As was discussed in Spring 2011’s Signs of the Tide event, there is a Great Trash Migration during every major storm which brings plastics and litter from gutters, messy dumpsters, and transient camps in San Diego’s canyons straight to our bay and award winning beaches. Thanks to our dedicated volunteers, this trash migration may change over time, and our data will help track that.

Along with the data report, Coastkeeper and Surfrider are also announcing the full 2012 schedule, which will again rotate locations of popular beaches throughout the county and are open to all volunteers. Thanks to everyone who supported this effort – and we’ll see you on the beach!