Coastal Cleanup Day – Why it Matters

If not you, who?

Volunteering to pick up trash during Coastal Cleanup Day will give you a sense of accomplishment and perhaps motivate you to take further action.

Coastal Cleanup Day is coming up next week on Saturday, September 21. Millions of people will be joined together by a common mission—picking up trash—making their small part of the world cleaner, safer, and more beautiful for themselves and everyone else. You could be one of them.

This worldwide day of action will be taking place on thousands of miles of coastline as well as the banks of creeks, streams, and lakes, and even at a few parks. Chances are you can find an opportunity to participate in your own community or nearby.

Taking part in Coastal Cleanup Day is an ideal activity for first-time volunteers because generally all you need to do is slather on sunscreen, fill up your reusable water bottle, and show up. Many, if not most sites, will provide equipment like grabbers and buckets. Then after picking up trash for a few hours, you are free to hang out on your local beach, hike along a cherished stream, or take pleasure in a lakeside picnic lunch.

Bring your kids or grandkids along to this family-friendly event giving them a chance to help do something worthwhile, engage in some citizen science, and have fun with you outdoors.

During Coastal Cleanup Day, you will be acting as a citizen scientist recording the type of trash you are picking up or sorting and categorizing it afterward. This data is useful for understanding the volume and makeup of trash so that we can collectively work on solutions to reduce and hopefully eliminate trashing our oceans and waterways.

Consume consume that’s all we do
We take and take and don’t regret
We need to know what’s best at end
Our oceans are at risk today
Because of all the things we toss away.

Robert Becerra, Grade 1, La Puente (2017 California Coastal Commission Student Art & Poetry Contest)

Why Should You Pick Up Other People’s Trash?

Humans seem to be the only inhabitants on Earth who litter, meaning that we produce waste that is not used by another organism for food, habitat, or other purposes and that we leave it lying about wherever we go.

Of course, you and I do not litter. It is the other people who do. So, why should you and I pick up other people’s trash?

Well, er, because instead of just being ticked off about litter we can empower ourselves to do something about it. I cannot think of any downside to there being less trash on beaches, along creeks, or in the oceans.

Perhaps you are thinking “Well, duh, I don’t need you to tell me that I can pick up litter if I want to.” Maybe not, but it is possible that you see litter without really seeing it or recognizing that you can do something about it.

That is how it was for me before participating in Coastal Cleanup Day in 2017.

Spending several hours with my spouse picking up and collecting trash on a beach where we live on the Central California Coast left an impression on me. If you are interested, you can read about it the post entitled Coastal Cleanup Day – Picking up Litter is Empowering.

Now, I see litter as something I can positively impact through my own choices and by picking up litter and throwing it in a recycle bin or trash can.

On the Way to the Post Office

Over the Labor Day weekend, our small town held its annual 3-day Pinedorado festival.

That Sunday, at the Pinedorado, my spouse and I bought some raffle tickets, savored slices of olallieberry pie (mine had vanilla ice cream on top), and purchased a potted plant from the garden club. Locals and visitors alike seemed to be enjoying the balmy weather, games, music, food, and the car show.

4 Clusters of Balloons Picked Up as Litter

A few days later, I encountered remains of the weekend as I was walking from my house to the post office. Beneath a bush, I spotted a couple of deflated balloons tied together with a ribbon. They had been part of colorful columns marking the Saturday parade route, but apparently, some of them had escaped the cleanup crew.

I picked them up and resumed my walk carrying them in my free hand. Within a span of a few minutes, I discovered and picked up three more balloon clusters. When I reached the downtown area, I put the balloons in the first trash can I came across.

Did anyone see me picking up these balloons, carrying them down the street, and then putting them in the trash can? Maybe or maybe not. It does not matter. What matters is that there are fewer balloons floating around town that could have been ingested by a toddler, a pet, or the local wildlife.

You may be scoffing or rolling your eyes thinking “She picked up a few pieces of litter. Big deal.” The thing is you could do it, too. Imagine if everyone did. Picking up other people’s trash shows that you care about where you live, work, or visit.

Sign Up for Coastal Cleanup Day in Your Community

Volunteers at ECOSLO Coastal Cleanup Day in Morro Bay, CA
ECOSLO Coastal Cleanup Day volunteers in Morro Bay, CA on September 17, 2011 – photo credit Michael L. Baird.

Where I live in San Luis Obispo County, CA, a local nonprofit called ECOSLO organizes and runs our cleanup days. This year we are having a Creeks to Coast Cleanup Day with events taking place at beaches, creeks, and lakes across the county.

My spouse and I volunteered to pick up trash along the banks of Santa Margarita Lake. After we finish our stint as volunteer trash collectors, we will enjoy the rest of the afternoon paddling our kayaks around the lake. Community service mixed with fun. What could be better?

To find an event near where you live type “Coastal Cleanup Day” and the name of your town into your Internet web browser, sign up for a location that interests you, and then show up the day of the event.

No beach, creek, or lake to clean up where you live? No worries pick a street in your neighborhood, a parking lot at work, or a local school playground and pick up trash there.

You may be pleasantly surprised by how rewarding picking up trash can be.

Featured Image at Top: a Fish sculpture made with pieces of trash found on a beach – photo credit iStock/SolStock.

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Your Community Parks, Open Spaces, and Gardens Need You

Sign up, then show up.

Picture a place in your community that you visit regularly to relax, walk, play, picnic, or just enjoy being outdoors. Have you ever helped take care of it?

If you answered yes, thank you.

For those of you who answered no (not yet), you are in luck because opportunities abound to do your part in keeping the outdoor spaces in your community beautiful, functional, fun, clean, and safe.

It is easy to talk yourself into believing that someone else will do it, especially when you are feeling overly busy and stressed out (or even when you are not). However, the reality is that public outdoor spaces are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Chances are that the hardworking employees and loyal cadres of volunteers who tend your community parks, gardens, and open spaces would appreciate your help.

Imagine the possibilities if you, me, and everyone else contributed even just one morning or afternoon a year to help care for an outdoor space that we feel is special. The number of trees planted, native plants rescued, playgrounds rehabilitated, walking trails maintained, picnic tables refurbished, weeds pulled, and pieces of litter picked up would be astonishing and wonderful.

Besides the obvious benefits to the community, these kinds of activities are good for your wellbeing, too. They require you to be present and to think about what you are doing not worry about micromanaging bosses, piles of laundry, or bickering family members. Working outside with other like-minded people is fun and gives you a feeling of doing something worthwhile.

Sometimes volunteer activities occur unexpectedly or by chance and turn out to be just the impetus you need to get started. That is what happened to me.

Something Happened on the Way to the Wildflower Show

A few weeks ago, I saw a notice in a newsletter from an environmental nonprofit called ECOSLO with a list of several volunteer opportunities for an event they were calling Seas to Trees Day. After consulting with my spouse, I signed us up in hopes that we would be helping with set up for the Cambria Wildflower Show.

Several days later, I received an enthusiastic email from Erin thanking me for signing up to remove invasive ice plant on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. I thought, “Oh no, not ice plant! I have been battling ice plant in our yard for years. Why would I want to volunteer to do it someplace else?” I considered asking for a reassignment or just telling Erin that we had changed our minds about volunteering.

The next day, I was still pondering what to do. “Hmm, we do enjoy walking on Fiscalini Ranch almost every day. This unwanted assignment provides an excellent opportunity for us to give back in a small way.”

We decided to do it.

Before I tell you how the day went, some background about ice plant and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve might be useful.

Ice Plant

Ice plant is a hardy and fast-growing plant with long-lasting flowers that are quite lovely when it is growing along its native coast in South Africa. It is an unwelcome interloper where I live on the Central California Coast and many other places. Ice plant spreads quickly and has a way of taking over an entire area hogging all the sunlight, water, and soil nutrients for itself. Ice plant chokes out the native plants that are used to playing nicely with their neighbors and do not have a defense against this invader.

When my spouse and I moved to our current home about ten years ago, there were several places in our wild yard that ice plant had completely taken over by stealthily crawling over from neighboring yards. It took me several years with a shovel and a pair of loppers to remove the ice plant from our yard. I have tried explaining to the plants that they should avoid our yard because as soon as they reach over the property line I am going to cut off their new growth, but apparently, we are having a language barrier because they will not stop trying to build a new outpost in our yard.

Our ice plant situation seems insignificant to the enormous incursion at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve encompasses 437 acres in the midst of our small town with trails along the ocean bluffs and through our precious Monterey pine forest. This special place exists because a dedicated group of people worked for years to block development on this land that had been used partly for grazing sheep and cattle. Eventually, they raised enough money to purchase the land and protect it forever.

As I mentioned earlier, my spouse and I walk on the Ranch many times a week, mostly on the bluff trail. During the two-mile round trip, we look for whale spouts, otters, and sea lions, watch a wide variety of local and migratory birds soar and swoop overhead, and observe the landscape as it changes throughout the year.

At some time in the distant past, someone must have planted ice plant on the Ranch. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, however, it has now spread down over a huge swath of the bluff cliffs and it is continually marching towards the nearby path. In some places, native plants are struggling to survive in the middle of large patches of ice plant or taking a stand along the edges. In other areas, the ice plant has completely taken over.

The nonprofit Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and other diligent volunteers have been successful at keeping the ice plant from crossing the path and moving onto the rest of the Ranch. They have also embarked on a massive and probably decades-long project to clear the ice plant growing between the path and the cliff edge. Native plants are making a comeback in the cleared areas.

Occasionally I have had a fleeting thought that I should help with the ice plant removal on the Ranch but I never actually did it, until the Seas and Trees Day event.

Seas and Trees Day Event

When Saturday, April 28 rolled around, I slathered on sunscreen and donned my California Native Plant Society t-shirt and a pair of gauntlet type gloves that I always wear to do yard work because I do not like creepy crawlies. I filled up my reusable water bottle and grabbed a pair of clippers my spouse had thoughtfully gotten out of the garage.

A group of cheerful people including several Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students greeted us at the designated meeting location. After signing waiver forms, we headed down the path a short distance to the day’s ice plant removal spot. Holly, who manages projects on the Ranch, gave us a plastic tarp and explained that the mission was to get rid of the ice plant without damaging the native plants. Clearly, this was going to be a finesse job that did not involve shovels or loppers—a new experience for me.

Ice plant stems are about the thickness of a highlighter marker and attach themselves to the ground with tenacious roots every few inches. Every part of the plant stores water so it is heavy. If you are lucky, you can grab a trailing end and pull up a piece that is three or four feet long. However, most of the work that day required using clippers to cut stems around the native plants and then pull up small pieces. I was surprised at how many itty-bitty native plant seedlings were gamely trying to make a go of it under the ice plant. Freed from a dense and almost impenetrable mat of ice plant they now have a better chance of becoming adult plants.

We tossed pieces of ice plant on the tarp until it looked like it might be getting too heavy to move. Then two people picked up the corners and carefully tried to tiptoe through the native plants and dump it onto one of two piles we were creating at the edge of the cliff. Holly and other regular volunteers had their own one-person sized tarps.

Bending over clipping ice plants stems, standing up and yanking out longer pieces, and hauling a tarp full of ice plant is physically demanding so I was ready to be done when our 2-hour stint was up.

Our work made a tiny dent in the ice plant, but we did meet some delightful people and made a small contribution to the wellbeing of the Ranch. I also gained a greater appreciation for the people who take care of the Ranch day after day, week after week.

Part of the Volunteer Group in Front of One of the Piles of Ice Plant Removed at Fiscalini Ranch on April 28, 2018
Part of the Volunteer Group in Front of One of the Piles of Ice Plant Removed at Fiscalini Ranch on April 28, 2018 – Photo Credit Holly Sletteland (also the 3 above photos)

An hour or so later, wearing the same clothes, my spouse and I enjoyed the wildflower show and I savored a delicious homemade lemon bar I bought at the refreshment stand.

Holly has my name and email address now, so chances are, on some future morning, my spouse and I will find ourselves standing in the midst of another patch of ice plant on the Ranch with clippers at the ready.

Call to Action

Certainly, if an unexpected volunteer opportunity falls in your lap, accept it. However, you can take a more active approach. Choose a garden, park, or open space in your community and find out what volunteer activities are available. Then pick one and do it.

If you do not want to or are not able to contribute your physical labor, there are sure to be other ways you can help.

Do you have an artistic flair? Volunteer to design a flyer for a volunteer day. Are you good at organizing information? Offer to keep track of volunteer responses and forms. Do you know your way around social media? Volunteer to do postings and engage with people on social media. Do you like writing? Offer to write a piece for a website, newsletter, or newspaper. Do you enjoy meeting and talking with new people? Sign up to be a docent or to staff a booth at an event.

Everyone has something to offer and it is up to each one of us to do our part to take care of the community parks, open spaces, and gardens we love.

Featured Image at Top: Bluff Trail at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA, May 2018 (notice the ice plant on the left side of the trail) – Photo Credit Green Groundswell.

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