It is the largest annual volunteer event in California: Every September since 1985, tens of thousands of people flock to beaches, rivers and lakes across the state to pick up tons of trash, beautify the environment and help protect wildlife.
But like downtown office buildings and public transit, Coastal Cleanup Day — taking place at 695 locations this Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon — is struggling to recover from the COVID pandemic.
“We’ve seen the number of volunteers slowly start to increase again,” said Eben Schwartz, marine debris program manager for the California Coastal Commission, which oversees the event. “We are increasing back to the size we were before. But I think it will take some time.”
In 2019, before COVID hit, 74,410 volunteers picked up 918,000 pounds of trash.
Due to the pandemic, there was no organized coastal cleanup in 2020. And even though the traditional cleanup day returned in 2021 and 2022, turnout last year was still just 38,467 people — about half of pre-COVID levels. They collected 308,540 pounds of trash, about a third of the pre-COVID total.
Organizers say they don’t know exactly why.
However, they note that people have made a habit of participating every year, either with a community group, family and neighbors or in a project organized by their employer. Some nonprofit leaders who had helped lead local cleanups left their organizations. The build-up to the event, now in its 39th year, will not happen all at once, they say.
“I feel like everyone is slowly getting back into volunteer mode,” said Jen Vanya, a spokeswoman for the East Bay Regional Park District, which is overseeing cleanup efforts at seven sites in Alameda and Contra Costa counties on Saturday.
“People now live at home more than before. After all of us have been through what we have experienced, home has become a more comfortable place to relax.”
This year, the Coastal Commission has launched a paid social media campaign and is working overtime to try to bring one of California’s most important environmental traditions back to full strength.
There will be events in at least 55 of California’s 58 counties, with only Sutter, Siskiyou and Trinity counties not participating yet.
Volunteers can show up at almost any location, including popular coastal beaches, San Francisco Bay, and inland lakes and streams. In many cases they just need to bring gloves.
To see the locations where organized cleanups are taking place, go to www.coastalcleanup.org.
Since the event began in 1985, more than 1.7 million volunteers have removed over 26 million pounds of trash from California’s outdoor areas.
The trash, especially plastic, not only makes the state’s beaches look untidy, but can also kill wildlife like birds and sea turtles that get caught in it or eat it.
The event takes place right as summer turns into fall. In this way, rubbish is removed from waterways before the first rains of winter wash it into the sea and bays.
Volunteers collect food wrappers, bottles, cans, cigarette butts and other debris and record the type and number of items so the Coastal Commission can track pollution trends.
They also find a laundry list of bizarre trash every year.
“Last year someone found a trophy. It was kind of weird. “It was the trophy for the best pair skaters of 2006,” Vanya said.
At Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline Park in Oakland, volunteers removed a couch from the shore.
“There’s a lot of crazy stuff,” she said.
Recent changes to California laws are impacting the type of trash found on beaches.
Four years ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law banning smoking on state beaches and state parks with a fine of up to $25 per violation. Cigarette butts, which are almost always the most common item found in terms of volume each year, fell to 26% of total litter last year, compared to an average of around 35% to 40% in previous years.
There has been a similar decline in plastic bags.
In 2014, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law banning plastic grocery bags to reduce trash and ocean pollution. Voters approved the law but rejected a challenge to the plastic bag industry.
In 2009, plastic grocery bags accounted for 8.7% of the trash found in California during coastal cleanup days.
Last year they were only 1.4%.
Coastal cleanup days in other states also have fewer volunteers than before the COVID pandemic, Schwartz said, adding that it will take people who care about the state’s nature and environment to bring the event back to its former size and to bring effectiveness.
“You might be a person who goes to the beach for a few hours and picks up 10 pounds of trash,” he said. “But you are one of dozens on this beach and one of tens of thousands across the state, all participating in the same activity at the same time – which has a huge collective impact.
“This event has impacts, and they are felt all year round.”