Credit: Courtesy Explore Ecology

“Whoa! Big find,” said my friend Aaron Peyton as he held up an intact glass bottle covered in sand. We were scouring Arroyo Burro Beach for trash, alongside hundreds of other volunteers around Santa Barbara County taking part in Coastal Cleanup Day on September 23.  

Callie Fausey and Aaron Peyton | Credit: Courtesy Explore Ecology

Coastal Cleanup Day is celebrated internationally, with 31 cleanup sites throughout Santa Barbara County participating this year. Volunteers removed more than 5,625 pounds of trash and recyclables from the coastline, covering an estimated 51 miles at sites ranging from Rincon Beach Park to Jalama. 

After putting on some gloves and grabbing a bucket, Peyton and I walked up and down the beach, sifting through seaweed and sand for remnants of plastic, paper, and any other garbage that found its way onto the beach. We passed by plenty of other volunteers, including young children with their parents, older folks, high schoolers racking up their community service hours, and even a woman with a newborn baby strapped to her chest. 

As we took out the trash, I tallied up what we collected on a data sheet, which helps with understanding what refuse ends up on our beaches and informs efforts toward remediation. Our findings included a broken golf-club handle — filled with sand that came rushing out when I picked it up — and an old foam ball hidden in a little crevice on the cliffside.

But it was depressing to realize just how much debris is on the beach. Jill Cloutier, the communications director for organizer Explore Ecology, told us to pick apart the seaweed to look for any microplastics — the smallest but most widespread pollutant in our oceans. 

Picking up every tiny piece of trash we saw would’ve taken an entire lifetime. That’s not an exaggeration. 

The little white specks in this photo are all tiny pieces of Styrofoam. | Credit: Callie Fausey

The closer we looked, the more we came to realize that the little white specks in the sand were not rocks, but Styrofoam. And it was everywhere. I quickly gave up on counting the tiny trash we picked up because I ran out of room after 35 tallies (and I was only counting the larger pieces). 

Crouching down to investigate a handful of sand, Peyton looked up at me and said, “I could sit here for 30 minutes picking up Styrofoam.” 

This year, out of the tons of trash collected and logged by volunteers, the top two items found were plastic pieces and cigarette butts, with the more unusual items including doll parts, a car wash mop, and a teddy bear. 

Coastal Cleanup Day, which started nearly 40 years ago, is locally organized by the nonprofit Explore Ecology in partnership with the county’s Resource Recovery and Waste Management Division. The event kicked off South County’s Creek Week (Sept. 23-30), an annual celebration of Santa Barbara’s creeks, watersheds, and the ocean.

“It’s impressive what volunteers can accomplish in three hours at our local beaches, parks, and creeks,” Cloutier said. “Community members of all ages came together for the coast, and the result is that our beaches are not only cleaner, but 2.81 tons of litter won’t be flowing into the ocean.

“That’s not only a win for us, but also for wildlife,” she continued. “Thank you so much to all of our volunteers, and we hope to see you next year.”

[Click to enlarge] Left: By the end of the day, volunteers had filled their buckets with trash to dispose of properly. Right: Data collected by volunteers helps inform remediation efforts. | Credit: Callie Fausey 

The California Coastal Commission organizes Coastal Cleanup Day statewide, and so far, with only 50 percent of cleanup sites reporting as of Monday, more than 150,000 pounds of trash was picked up by more than 27,000 volunteers statewide. 

“For generations, Californians have demonstrated their love and dedication to our coast during Coastal Cleanup Day,” said the Coastal Commission’s Executive Director Dr. Kate Huckelbridge. “We see how devoting only a few hours on a Saturday in September translates into a year-round commitment to the protection and preservation of our coast.”

Volunteers who participated in the Cleanup can visit the Coastal Commission website to fill out the Coastal Cleanup Day Volunteer Survey and be entered in a drawing for prizes.

Community members are encouraged to clean up any time during the month of September, and their cleanup data will be included as part of Coastal Cleanup Day. Volunteers can record what they find using the Clean Swell app or the Google form on the Explore Ecology website.

For volunteers who don’t want to wait until next year to participate in a beach cleanup, Explore Ecology holds monthly beach cleanups, on the second Sunday of every month from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Arroyo Burro Beach.


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