How Much Trash is Really at Your Beach?

SLIDESHOW: A Post-Coastal Cleanup Report from San Pedro, California

By Elizabeth Glazner

Cabrillo Beach is a 9-minute walk from my apartment at Point Fermin, the southernmost, contiguous tip of the city of Los Angeles. To get there from downtown, you take the Harbor Freeway south as far as you can, until the road dumps you onto Gaffey Street. You know you are in a port town because you can spot the gigantic storage tanks of liquid chemicals as you exit, and the thousands of shipping containers stacked like gigantic Legos where only a century ago, there used to be a beach. If you follow your instincts and stay on Gaffey until you can't go any further, you will eventually drive up a hill and be surprised by spectacular ocean vistas in every direction but behind you. You'll drop down the hill and dead end at a park, a 19th century lighthouse and a sheer drop-off above a rocky shoal. That's how I found my apartment.

Park your car and walk south along the bluff, and you'll wind your way along some sweet oceanfront houses until you get to a chain link fence that borders a trail leading down to Cabrillo Beach. It's actually two beaches—one inside the harbor, and the other outside a breakwater that was built at the dawn of the last century to create the biggest shipping container port in North America. It was at Cabrillo that they held my local beach cleanup yesterday during the 31st annual International Coastal Cleanup Day. 

The Ocean Conservancy stages the hunt for trash every year, hooking up with local groups like the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium to do the organizing and handing out of tools, little pencils and data collection cards to volunteers. I checked out my plastic glove, a bucket and a plastic trash bag to go collecting until noon, when they would weigh all the trash collected and send the results to central organizers to add together for one giant, global 2015 trash tally. 

All over the world, beaches were swept clean of rubbish, the bulk of which was plastic, in the usual forms: bottles and butts, toys and containers, wrappers and six-pack holders, bags and more bags. When I got to my beach, the surface of it already looked picked clean, and kids were kicking back with bottled water, snacks and the whole rest of the day to play. I headed to an area of sand between the tide pools and the bluff just yards north of the sand, and picked a spot.

For the next two hours, I sat in one place and sifted through a surface area of about three square feet. Here is what I found (click through slideshow):

The surface area of the patch of shore where I chose to pick up trash looked relatively clean, but when I began to pick through the rocks and bits of natural debris kicked up by the waves, I was more than surprised. Cigarette butts blend in and look like stones or bits of wood; fishing line could be the sinews of seaweed. If you have ever come across beach glass weathered to smooth, colorful pebbles, bits of broken beer bottles in this landscape seem almost organic, or at least, the lesser of many evils. 

But as I picked through it, I began to find dozens of pieces of plastic and polystyrene foam—especially the foam—no bigger than a quarter and sometimes much smaller. I found 25 cigarette butts, eight plastic and 13 metal with plastic liner bottle caps, three plastic straws, countless bits of glass and foam and plastic, including feather-like bits of what were certainly single-use plastic bags, and an astonishing 84 feet of fishing line in my random spot, within which was snagged one rusty fish hook.

All of which was unnoticeable to the three middle school girls sitting on the low concrete wall a few feet from my dig. I could not help myself; I brought them up close, and spent 10 minutes talking about the plastic that lurks just beneath the surface of our environment, when I realized they were squirming like they were being held in detention after school. I hope I didn't scare them away from next year's beach cleanup.

Maybe next year, they will look closer at the ground. We can't sweep away the plastic at our beaches, but we can dig a little deeper, and refuse plastics in the first place.

Elizabeth is the Editorial Director. Reach her at editor@plasticpollutioncoalition.org.


Photos: Elizabeth Glazner, Carol Jeffcoate