Cleaning Up Coastal Cleanup Day

By Caroline Griffith

Dedicated Coastal Cleanup Day 2019 volunteer, Jessy Carlson, picking up trash on the Arcata Bay Trail.

For many of us on the North Coast, gathering together to pick up trash on the beach is a family tradition. But did you know that Coastal Cleanup Day, which is now sponsored by the California Coastal Commission and draws tens of thousands of volunteers every September, was inspired partly by clean-ups being practiced on Humboldt County beaches? Ever the trend setters, last year the NEC branched out again by going zero-waste and following our ideals to host an event free of virgin plastic and fast fashion from corporate sponsors. This year, there are more changes in store for Coastal Cleanup Day as we adapt to the changing conditions around COVID 19.

The Beach Beautification Project, started by locals, Anne Morrissey and Joe Abbott, began in 1979 as a grant funded program to clean up Humboldt County beaches. Morrissey and Abbott paired with the NEC to run the program for the duration of the grant. When that funding ran out, the program morphed into the Adopt-A-Beach program under the leadership of Wes Chesboro of the Arcata Recycling Center and Sid Dominitz, former editor of the EcoNews. Around the same time, up in Oregon, residents were also organizing to pick up trash on the beaches and the world’s first statewide volunteer beach cleanup would be held on October 13, 1984, under the title “Plague of Plastics”. California followed suit the next year when the California Coastal Commission sponsored the first Coastal Cleanup Day. Then, in 1986, the Ocean Conservancy began its Coastal Cleanup in Texas, eventually expanding worldwide.

Enthusiastic Coastal Cleanup Day 2019 volunteers on the Eureka Waterfront Trail. Photo credit, Pam Halstead.

As these cleanup events gained in size and popularity, the various organizations that sponsored them began looking to corporate backers for funding. A major sponsor of California Coastal Cleanup Day is CG Roxanne LLC, the company that bottles Crystal Geyser water. According to the California Coastal Commission data on cleanups, plastic beverage bottles were #8 on the list of items most often picked up on beaches from 1988-2017 and account for 2.72% of trash. Lids and caps are #3, accounting for 9.13% of items picked up on Coastal Cleanup Day. Among the major sponsors of the Ocean Conservancy and International Coastal Cleanup Day are the Coca-Cola Foundation, the Starbucks Foundation and Dow, makers of all things petrochemical, from industrial solvents to plastic packaging. Ironically, the tagline of the international event is “Ending the Flow of Trash at the Source.”

While we recognize that organizations need money to survive and that these companies may be trying to right some of the wrongs they are creating with their single-use packaging and plastics manufacturing, the NEC is working to truly end the flow of trash at the source by declining it in the first place. In many ways, this involves going back to our roots and doing cleanups the way they used to in the 70s: with a bucket, reusable gloves and no plastic water bottles. Our first zero waste Coastal Cleanup Day was a success and we anticipate getting better at it every year as we all break away from the status quo of accepting unnecessary things just because they are free.

In 2018, the latest year that data is available for California Coastal Cleanup Day, 71,756 volunteers cleaned up 819,323 pounds of debris, 59,969 of which was recyclable. According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic beverage bottles and plastic bottle caps were the #5 and #6 top items picked up in 2018 (1,754,908 and 1,390,232 pieces, respectively) and 2018 was the second year that all of the top ten most commonly found items were made of plastic. That’s an impressive amount of plastic kept out of our waterways, but imagine if that trash didn’t exist in the first place. 

As NEC Coastal Programs Coordinator, Casey Cruikshank, says, “We put so much work into debris removal and we appreciate the offer of financial support from these companies, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that they are part of the problem. By hosting a zero waste event and bringing a zero waste mindset into everything we do, we hope to spread awareness by being part of the solution and stopping the waste at the source. Last year’s event was a huge success and we hope to keep improving on it every year. By tracking marine debris data through citizen science we hope to gain a better understanding of local waste patterns and create long-term solutions for marine debris in Humboldt County.