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Dumpster Diving: What We Leave Behind on the Beach Reveals a lot About Us

  Our trash tells a lot about who we are, what we value and how we behave. Some of the lessons are inspirational and uplifting but many more are troubling. This year’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), and a subsequent research project, reveals the full range of trash tales. As part of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free...


Our trash tells a lot about who we are, what we value and how we behave. Some of the lessons are inspirational and uplifting but many more are troubling.

This year’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), and a subsequent research project, reveals the full range of trash tales. As part of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas team, I helped lead a pilot project dubbed “Trashlab.” The project’s research initiative is to provide more accurate and ecologically-relevant information on the debris that clogs our waterways and spoils our beaches.

Much of what we uncovered during the project is unsettling so let’s start with the positive: It’s clear many people care deeply about their local beaches and the special ocean places they enjoy with their friends and family. Each year, over 500,000 volunteers from over 150 countries participate in the ICC, the world’s biggest volunteer effort on behalf of ocean health. Over the last 26 years, they have removed over 154 million pounds of trash from the shore.

At one beach in Santa Cruz County, California my colleague and I fortuitously pulled into the parking lot just as high school teacher Patrick Adams and his 107 student volunteers from Bellarmine College Prep posed for a picture in front of an enormous mound of trash they lugged up from the beach below. Heaving bags into the pickup-truck we arrived in, we learned that Patrick brings his students to this beach every year. Not content with just removing dozens of bags of trash, two old television sets, and a complete mattress and box spring set from the beach, Patrick and his students were transporting several abandoned bikes they found tossed off the cliff back to their school in San Jose where they plan to refurbish and donate them to those in need.

With our truck piled high with trash “samples” from area beaches, we ferried our booty to the Trashlab facility – a barn at the city’s Resource Recovery Center. Neither our small research project nor the global International Coastal Cleanup could be accomplished without an army of dedicated citizen volunteers, from the families giving up a Saturday morning to collect plastic water bottles off the beach to the city workers who provided us with a facility to sort and weigh what we’d collected.

After the day’s efforts I was feeling all warm and fuzzy inside – until we opened the bags. What spilled out on the table was a cornucopia of our casual disregard for our beaches and ocean. The full frontal sensory assault was overpowering. Cigarette butts fell like quarters from a slot machine. ICC data reveal that butts are the most common item found on beaches around the globe. My immediate and visceral conclusion: smokers must stop using the world as their ashtray – now.

Bags from some of the beaches were bursting with bottles and cans of every variety. Beaches in the more rural northern portion of Santa Cruz County are well known by locals as “party beaches” and the trash left behind certainly confirms it. Beer is the clear beverage of choice but interestingly, brews range from the cheapest of swill to the finest of local microbrews. It appears that beer drinkers are equal-opportunity litterers. I expected beaches in the more populated areas, frequented by families and tourists might be cleaner, but only the nature of debris, not quantity, changed. Food wrappers of all types – from fast food takeout containers to every possible variety of potato chips, cracker, candy and other snack food were plentiful. It was clear – folks don’t come to the beach to eat health food.

After we removed and weighed these and the other obvious items, a mass of unidentifiable junk, including large amounts of plastic fragments, remained. The conclusion was apparent: pretty much anything you can imagine will, unfortunately, be found on the beach.

So, given its scale and scope, how do we stem the tide of ocean trash? This is a challenging and at times controversial question. From my Trashlab experience, I’d say there is no silver bullet.

At its foundation, we must all embrace a stronger ocean conservation ethic, committing to pack out what we pack in to our local beach. Just as throwing garbage out your car window is now politically incorrect (remember Keep America Beautiful’s famous 1971 Ad campaign featuring Iron Eyes Cody, the “crying Indian?”), so too must trashing our beaches become socially unacceptable. And while individual responsibility is critical, corporations and companies that manufacture the plethora of materials found on the beach and in our waterways must also take responsibility. Most of the debris found on the beach comes from single use products, whether they are straws, water bottles or plastic grocery bags. Innovative packaging, improved waste management and expanded recycling must all be part of the mix. New technology, like Ocean Conservancy’s iPhone app, Rippl, can help get all of us started.

Let us all commit to this challenge. When we dig deep into ocean trash we may reveal a collective commitment for greater respect for our beaches – and ultimately for ourselves.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo George Leonard
George Leonard is Chief Scientist at Ocean Conservancy. A long-time scuba diver, George knew he wanted to be a marine biologist at the age of 12 when he first watched Jacques Cousteau's TV special on the sleeping sharks of Yucatan in 1975. During his graduate work, he logged over 400 dives in 3 years, studying California's kelp forests, the undersea equivalent of a tropical rain forest.