Coastal Cleanup Day – Picking up Litter is Empowering

Wherever there is litter, there is an opportunity to pick it up.

Picking up trash during a beach, creek, or park cleanup day is an easy and rewarding way to do something good for the environment and your local economy.

A few weeks ago when I saw a Coastal Cleanup Day notice in my social media feed, instead of clicking on the signup link I scrolled down the page feeling irritated and frustrated.

I was thinking things like, “Geez, if people didn’t litter, then the beaches wouldn’t need to be cleaned up every dang year!” and “Why do people pile up trash around a full trash can instead of looking for another one or just taking their trash home and putting it in their own garbage can?” The thought of people tossing trash out of their car windows as they are driving along our coastline made me feel infuriated and powerless.

After fuming for a day or so, I decided I was not powerless and that I could do something about litter so I signed up for a Coastal Cleanup Day event where I live in San Luis Obispo County, CA. I talked my spouse into participating, too.

Once I had taken this positive step, I returned to thinking about how litter affects people, the environment, and local economies.

Why Do People Litter?

Even though I believe, everyone has littered at one time or another I doubt most of us would say we think littering is a beneficial act.

At the dinner table one night, I posed the question “Why do people litter?” to my family. The responses included people do not care, it is a small crime easy to get away with, and people think someone else will clean up after them.

I think that pretty much sums it up.

What are the Consequences of Litter?

Someone taking the devil’s advocate approach might say, “So what if there is a discarded candy wrapper, plastic bag, or Styrofoam cup on a beach, in a street gutter, or on a hiking trail? Is it really hurting anyone?”

Yes, it is.

Litter Begets Litter

Litter mysteriously seems to attract more litter.

If one person discards his or her empty single-use plastic water bottle on the wall between the beach and the sidewalk, it sends a message for other people to do the same. If someone discards their old mattress in a vacant lot or on open land, it attracts other unwanted items and the area becomes an unofficial trash dump creating a dangerous and potentially toxic situation for the people living near it.

Conversely, if people clean up a trashed area it shows that someone cares and people are more apt to keep it clean.

Litter is Dangerous

In many cases, the littered items are harmful to the people, pets, and other living creatures that encounter them. Below are examples of dangerous litter people leave behind.

  • Sharp objects – fishing hooks, pieces of broken glass, and syringes
  • Entangling items – fishing line, six-pack holders, straws, string, and plastic bags
  • Ingestible bits – cigarette butts, bottle caps, and tiny pieces of plastic and Styrofoam
Litter is Costly

Whom do you think pays for removing litter from public places, dealing with plastic bags clogging up storm drains, and clearing up unofficial trash dumps? You do one way or another.

Any town, city, or region that relies on tourism cannot afford to have visitors deterred by yucky debris filled beaches, parks, or campgrounds. That means diverting tax dollars and fees to clean up trash instead of paying for community programs, fixing potholes, or doing hiking trail maintenance.

Picking up Litter is Empowering

When Saturday, September 16 rolled around, my spouse and I slathered on sunscreen, grabbed some gloves, a tub, and a pair of kitchen tongs (instant trash picker upper), and headed for the Cleanup Day check-in spot at our local beach.

After turning in our release waivers, the site volunteer Dave gave us a tiny pencil and a sheet to record the different types of trash we picked up. Voilà we were now citizen scientists collecting data on marine debris.

Tub of Trash Picked Up on Coastal Cleanup Day September, 16, 2017I was in charge of making tick marks on the trash sheet as my spouse picked various pieces of trash and carried the tub. I did pick up trash, too.

At the end of 2 ½ hours, we had covered our self-assigned section of beach and the adjacent park and we had filled up our tub about half full of trash.

The most numerous identifiable litter items we encountered were cigarette butts, bottle caps (metal and plastic), and aluminum can pull tabs (I was surprised by these because I thought they were supposed to stay on the can). Combined we found about 40 cup lids, straws, pieces of plastic flatware, plastic single-use water bottles, plastic bags, and picnic plates and cups.

We picked up hundreds of little pieces of plastic, Styrofoam, and paper that had begun life as candy wrappers, picnic ware, coffee cups, potato chip bags, and take out containers. The number of little plastic labels that are put on fruit and vegetables that we found lying around the park was astonishing. To me, all the small bits were the most worrisome. They are lightweight so they can blow all over the place and they can be picked up and eaten by curious and unsuspecting toddlers, pets, birds, fish, and other critters who live on land and in the water.

Comb, Clothespin, Chess Piece Picked Up on Coastal Cleanup Day September, 16, 2017One of the fill-in-the-blank boxes on our trash form was for recording the most unusual item we collected.

Our findings of a dog collar, a filthy sweatshirt, a clothespin, a comb, and a chess game pawn were not especially unusual but I bet the person who owned the chess set was bummed when they discovered they were missing a piece.

We returned to the gathering spot to weigh our trash, turn in our tick mark sheet, and thank Dave.

I was glad we participated in the Cleanup Day for a number of reasons. Leaving behind a litter-free stretch of beach and a park for everyone to enjoy gave me a sense of accomplishment. My spouse had spotted and cleaned up a broken beer bottle, which could have given someone a nasty cut. Maybe we saved a seabird from ensnaring itself in the tangled fishing line and hook we picked up off the beach. Perhaps someone who had seen us that day picking up trash was inspired to make the extra effort to walk to a trashcan to throw something away instead of just leaving it on the ground.

People littering still ticks me off.

However, I can empower myself to do something about it and so can you. Wherever there is litter, there is an opportunity to set a good example by picking it up.

See you next year.

Featured Image at Top: Leffingwell Landing State Park and Beach in Cambria, CA (our cleanup site)

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Can Eating Ugly Fruits and Vegetables End Hunger and Food Waste?

Beauty is only skin deep is true for food, too.

Stopping food waste at the farm is a positive step towards ending hunger in the United States. Eating ugly fruits and vegetables is one way you can help.

Thinking about issues as far-reaching and multifaceted as hunger and food waste can be overwhelming. You may feel like you cannot do much about them. The thing is that even if a problem is huge and complex you can learn about a small aspect of it and then take action.

For this post, I chose eating ugly fruits and vegetables because I believe that our perception of what constitutes edible food influences our decisions all along the food chain.

This post provides a 30,000-foot look at hunger, food waste, and the environment so you can get a grip on the big picture. It also includes a section on food aesthetics and ideas about how you can participate in the ugly food movement.

For readers wanting more information, you can find links to reports, articles, and videos at the end of the post.

A 30,000-Foot Look at Hunger, Food Waste, and the Environment

I have a love hate relationship with data and statistics. Information is necessary for identifying problems, figuring out what is causing them, and measuring solutions to find out whether they are working or not. What worries me is that the people counted in statistics can too easily become just numbers in a database instead of living breathing people with lives and loved ones. Please keep this in mind as you review the information below.

Hunger

Over 42 million people in the United States live in a food-insecure household, which is government-speak for these people do not have enough food to eat on a regular basis. It is hard to get your arms around 42 million people (13% of our population), but chances are you know one or more of these 42 million people, even though you might not know they go hungry sometimes (one of these people could even be you).1

There are many reasons that people go hungry in the United States mostly having to do with not having enough money to buy healthy food or not having access to it or both. One part of the problem is that affordable fresh fruits and vegetables are not available and affordable for everyone.

Food Waste

The United States spends over $218 billion (yes, billion) growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten.Reducing food waste even 15% would be enough food to feed 25 million Americans.4

Farmers do not even harvest over 10 million tons of food a year.2 These fruits, vegetables, and other crops are left to rot in fields and orchards, fed to livestock animals, or sent to landfills. One in five fruits and vegetables do not get eaten, at least not by a human.3

Environment

Putting food on American tables eats up 10% of our total energy budget, uses 50% of our land, and gulps 80% of our freshwater, yet 40% of the food in the United States goes uneaten.4

Farmers apply tons of synthetic chemicals and toxins to food crops during all stages of growth including fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and a host of other substances intended to either promote growth or kill something. Land, air, and water pollution cause life and death problems like cancer in people, ocean dead zones, and bee colony collapse. 5, 6, 7

As you can see, these are serious and huge issues.

Next, let’s bite off a manageable chunk (pun intended) of the food waste problem that we can do something about.

Food Aesthetics – Picky, Picky

Your food selection criteria are highly influenced by the federal government and food distributors and retailers.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture issues voluntary food grade standards and most food distributors and retailers adhere to these standards even though they are not required to (in most cases).

These standards cover a wide variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products, and grains, both fresh and processed. The standards determine what are acceptable sizes, shapes, colors, and other attributes depending on what kind of food it is. The general idea is that standardizing food quality and appearance makes it easier to market food and provide customers with what they want.

Standards probably do make buying and selling food easier for everyone in the food system, except perhaps for farmers. Unfortunately, it also creates picky food shoppers and leads to mountains of edible food decomposing in fields and landfills across the country.

In all likelihood, you grew up eating these calibrated fruits and vegetables. I did. Today as you and I push our shopping carts around the produce section in our local grocery stores our learned preferences and biases influence our selections.

Faced with a scarred nectarine or a three-legged carrot we may frown and not actually view it as an edible piece of food. It is not our fault; after all, we received training from a powerful industry with a massive advertising budget.

Beauty is Only Skin Deep is True for People and Food

It is not easy to overcome automatically avoiding foods that do not match your preconceived notion of acceptable food appearance. Like changing any habit, it requires making a different choice repeatedly until it becomes routine.

Take a potato for instance. Once you peel, cook, and mash a potato it looks like mashed potatoes regardless of what the whole potato looked like at the store. If you consistently buy potatoes with odd-looking bumps, at some point they may just register as potatoes in your mind instead of imperfect potatoes.

Below are photos of some ugly carrots I bought. I sliced two for a snack and cut up a few to use in a stir-fry vegetable dish. Can you tell which of the ugly carrots I used?

Wider acceptance of so-called ugly fruits and vegetables could lead to several positive outcomes.

  • Farmers – harvesting ugly crops and selling them at discounted prices increases revenue and reduces food waste in the field.
  • Cooks and Chefs – buying and incorporating ugly food into recipes and menus reduces costs, builds market demand, and helps spread the word.
  • Food Shoppers – requesting and buying ugly produce builds market demand at the retail level making fresh fruits and vegetables more widely available and affordable.
  • Food Retailers – expanding offerings to include ugly food brings in additional revenue, creates goodwill, and reduces food waste.
  • Food Non-Profits – keeping more food in the system at a lower cost enables organizations to provide healthy and nutritious food for a larger number of hungry people.

Okay, sounds good, now what?

What Can You Do?

You have an opportunity to join the fledging ugly food movement in the United States and take part in reducing food waste and building market demand for ugly and affordable fruits and vegetables. Here are a few ideas to help you get you started.

  • Buy ugly produce when you can find it at the store or farmers market. Do not worry if you cannot bring yourself to buy a really weird looking fruit or vegetable, start with something easy like a curvy cucumber.
  • Ask the produce manager or store manager at your local grocery market if they have imperfect looking produce for sale and if not ask them to try stocking it.
  • Sign up for an ugly food box service that delivers to your home or workplace or that you can swing by and pick up. Keep it local.
  • Make a tasty dish using ugly produce and share your recipe and before and after pictures with your friends and family and on social media.
  • Volunteer to pick ugly crops donated by a farmer, pack boxes with ugly fruits and vegetables at a food bank, or help make meals with ugly produce at a shelter.

Your willingness to buy and eat ugly fruits and vegetables may not end hunger and food waste in the United States, but you can be part of the ripple that can turn into a wave of change.

You never know, you might begin to look at a bruised apple or a container of leftovers in a whole new light.

Featured Image at Top: Pile of Raw Ugly Carrots – Photo Credit Shutterstock/farbled

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References

  1. Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2015, USDA Economic Research Service, 2016
  2. A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, ReFed, 2016
  3. How Californians Are Fighting Food Waste on the Farm, at the Store and at Home, by Danny Jensen, KCET, 04/05/17
  4. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, by Dana Gunders, NRDC, 08/2012
  5. As Trump’s EPA Takes Shape, Here’s Your Pesticide Cheat Sheet, by Elizabeth Grossman, Civil Eats, 02/02/17
  6. “Dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is biggest ever, by Ian Hendy, The Conversation, 08/11/17
  7. Is America’s most common pesticide responsible for killing our bees?, Alison Moodie, The Guardian, 02/05/17

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