People at a beach cleanup facing the ocean

California Coastal Cleanup Day

While the California Coastal Commission did not run beach cleanups until 1985, efforts to keep our beaches free from plastics and other debris had been underway in California for quite some time. In 1979, Humboldt County community member Joe Abbott, having grown frustrated with the growing garbage problem plaguing local beaches, teamed with his wife Ann Morrissey to write a grant for what was first called the Beach Beautification Project. Under initial sponsorship and coordination from the Northcoast Environmental Center and its leaders Tim McKay and Sid Dominitz, the program was able to remove over 34,000 pounds of trash from 110 miles of Humboldt shoreline. Two years later, the NEC partnered with the Arcata Recycling Center, under the leadership of Wes Chesbro (who has since served a long career in the California State Legislature), to create the first "Adopt-A-Beach" program in California.

As community concern over trash on beaches grew, the cleanup idea began to spread, in California and elsewhere. In 1984, Oregon resident Judy Neilson, concerned over the plastic debris she saw littering the Oregon coast, organized the first statewide beach cleanup event in the U.S., calling it the "Plague of Plastics." California followed suit the following year when, in 1985, the California Coastal Commission organized its first statewide cleanup event - California Coastal Cleanup Day.

Close to 2,500 Californians took part that first year, and the California Coastal Cleanup Day program has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since. Since 1985, more than 1.6 million volunteers have removed over 26 million pounds of trash from beaches and inland waterways across the state.

In 1986, The Ocean Conservancy (then known as the Center for Marine Conservation) ran its first Coastal Cleanup in Texas, and soon after collaborated with the Coastal Commission to spread the cleanup movement first across the country, and later internationally. The International Coastal Cleanup now takes place in almost every state and over 100 countries and has become the world's largest volunteer event related to the marine environment.

In 1993, California Coastal Cleanup Day was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the "largest garbage collection" ever organized, with 50,405 volunteers. Since then, Coastal Cleanup Day continued to grow, steadily expanding inland. It now takes place in almost every California county. Since much of the plastic pollution in the ocean and on the coast travels there from city streets and inland waterways, cleanups in inland communities and throughout the watershed prevent trash from eventually becoming marine debris.

As volunteers pick up trash from California's coasts and inland waterways, they also record the types of trash they find. This data provides policy makers and the public with the information needed to make important decisions. The data volunteers collect each year has helped track what plastic products are making their way to California's beaches, rivers, and creeks. With these numbers, policy makers, businesses, and the public can begin to take actions to reduce both plastic production and pollution.

This data has been vitally important in developing and monitoring debris reduction policies, such as bans on single-use plastic grocery bags, plastic straws, and polystyrene foam foodware. California state and local laws designed to reduce the use of various single-use plastic products were driven in part because these items have been so ubiquitous in Coastal Cleanup data. Plastic bags were the 5th most common item of trash collected in 1998. California banned plastic bags in 2016, and by 2017, plastic bags were no longer one of the top 10 most common items collected. Recently, coastal cleanup data also contributed to new storm water regulations put in place to eliminate the amount of trash leaving our storm water drainage system.

Coastal Cleanup Day has successfully diverted millions of pounds of plastic debris from the ocean, but at the end of the day, this event is about much more than picking up trash. Over the years, the event has created a long-term dataset that describes the prevalence of different types of debris on our beaches and shorelines, which is used by policy makers to shape and monitor the success of plastic pollution prevention efforts. Moreover, it's a chance for Californians to join people around the world in expressing respect for our oceans and waterways, as well as an opportunity for the community to send a statement and demonstrate its desire for clean water and healthy marine life. Finally, it's a moment to share with one's neighbors, family, and friends, coming together to accomplish something vital and worthy on behalf of the places we treasure.

#1. Cigarettes/Cigarette Filters 8,403,338 35.34%
#2. Food Wrappers/Containers 2,592,161 10.90%
#3. Caps/Lids 2,207,929 9.28%
#4. Bags (paper and plastic) 1,723,026 7.25%
#5. Cups/Plates/Forks, Knives, Spoons 1,268,781 5.34%
#6. Straws/Stirrers 961,822 4.04%
#7. Beverage Bottles (Glass) 749,812 3.15%
#8. Beverage Bottles (Plastic) 659,505 2.77%
#9. Beverage Cans 573,772 2.41%
#10. Construction Material 407,651 1.71%




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