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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All Americans Should Visit a Landfill

There is no “away.”

I double dog dare you to visit your local landfill to see what happens to your garbage. Afterward, ask yourself how you can improve your own waste habits.

Think of touring a landfill as a cross between an interesting field trip and a civic duty. Add to the fun with a side trip to a materials recovery facility also called an MRF (pronounced “murf”).

Each week, you, I, and everyone else toss our solid waste into garbage, recycling, and green waste bins, perhaps without much thought about what goes where. Then, once a week, while we are at work, school, sleeping, running errands, or otherwise going about our day, the contents of these bins are magically whisked away.

U.S. Total Solid Waste Generation 2015 Pie Chart
Percentages of materials that made up U.S. municipal solid waste in 2015 – source U.S. EPA

The problem is that there is no “away” and the environmental impact of landfills is enormous.

Environmental Impact of Landfills

Nowadays, at least in the U.S., landfills operate under more stringent regulations than in the past. Environmental issues vary widely depending on a number of factors including landfill size, location, design, contents, age, and how it is operated and managed.

U.S. Disposition of Solid Waste 2015 Pie Chart
Disposition of U.S. solid waste in 2015 – source U.S. EPA
  • Landfills take up large amounts of land displacing plants, animals, and even people.
  • Slowly decomposing plant, animal and human waste produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than CO2. According to the U.S. EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country.
  • Rainfall and moisture can cause toxic chemicals to leach into streams, lakes, and groundwater killing aquatic life and endangering drinking water.
  • Air pollution is created by trucks collecting and transporting garbage and by dust and other particulate matter churned up at the landfill.
  • When reusable and recyclable materials are buried in a landfill, the energy, resources, and people power that went into making them is wasted.

To me, the biggest environmental impact of landfills is that they enable and even encourage consumerism and wasteful practices. Our waste is conveniently tucked away out of our sight so we do not have to think about it.

The Trash Trifecta

I acknowledge that I might be a wee bit more fascinated by garbage than many people. For instance, one of my favorite nonfiction books is Garbology by Edward Humes. I have also written at least 35 posts that have some connection to waste.

So, you can probably imagine my excitement when, recently, I had the opportunity to visit a landfill, MRF, and an anaerobic digester all on the same day. I was in solid waste heaven.

Below, you will get a glimpse into what happens at a landfill and a materials recovery facility. We will take a look at the anaerobic digester in the next post.

I live in a small town on the Central California Coast in San Luis Obispo County, CA where the entire population is about 285,000 people. My household’s garbage goes to Cold Canyon Landfill the largest of the three landfills in the County. Based on the permitted capacities of the three landfills I estimate that Cold Canyon Landfill takes in 60-70% of the County’s solid waste.

Aerial View of Cold Canyon Landfill and Materials Recovery Facility
This is an aerial view of Cold Canyon Landfill in San Luis Obispo County, CA using Google Maps. The red rectangle shows the location of the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).

Although landfills and MRFs operate in a similar manner across the U.S. there are differences and capabilities may vary considerably. For instance, some MRFs have equipment that enables them to process difficult to handle items like single-use plastic bags, but many like the one where I live, do not.

At the Landfill

At the Cold Canyon Landfill, my spouse and I joined students from the California Naturalist Program at Cuesta College. Our host was Mike di Milo. He is the owner of Science Discovery the company that runs education programs on behalf of the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority.

After donning electric yellow safety vests, we bundled into several vehicles for a short trip into the landfill and stopped on a section of road that overlooked the day’s activities. Mike had us stand in a group while he shared facts about the landfill and talked about how it works.

Engineering

You may think a landfill is just a pit, but that is not the case, at least at Cold Canyon. The landfill is carefully engineered and monitored.

Cold Canyon Landfill Garbage Dumping Deck
As soon as we stopped on the side of the road, I jumped out and took this photo of the Cold Canyon Landfill garbage dumping deck.

The excavated area currently being used was lined with plastic, clay, and gravel before any garbage was put in it. A drainage system diverts stormwater runoff to a settling pond to keep sediment out of nearby Pismo Creek. The compacted garbage is arranged into layers about 15-20 feet high and then covered with about 2 feet of compacted soil. The top is seeded to grow plants and grasses to reduce erosion.

Operations

Cold Canyon Landfill takes in about 1 million pounds (500 tons) of garbage a day six days a week. Our visit was during the morning before most of the municipal garbage trucks had come by to dump their loads so the pile of garbage was small.

We watched as pickup trucks pulled up alongside big garbage trucks at the edge of the garbage pile and dumped their loads. The bulldozer operator maneuvered nimbly around the trucks staying out of the way but constantly pushing the pile toward the pit. Another heavy equipment operator focused on getting the garbage compacted in a designated area.

On windy days, large litter screens are strategically placed to stop garbage from flying out of the landfill.

At the end of the day, the garbage is covered with tarps until the next day. This practice eliminates the need for a daily layer of dirt allowing the landfill to extend its useful life because there is room for more garbage.

Mike pointed out the above ground pipes running across the top of the covered landfill sections that capture and transport methane gas produced by the landfill. Burning the methane generates power for the landfill and the Arroyo Grande Oil Field in Price Canyon.

We learned that there is a section for collecting separated demolition and construction materials. Lower dumping (tipping) fees encourage contractors to do this, but it is not mandatory. There is also a place on site where residents can drop off their household hazardous waste like used motor oil, paint, and pesticides.

Environmentally Friendly Pest Control

After Mike filled us with information, we had the pleasure of meeting a falconer named Aaron and a magnificent Harris’s hawk.

Falconer Aaron with Harris's Hawk at Cold Canyon Landfill

Aaron cares for and works with this hawk and four other birds of prey. They keep the volume of seagulls flying around the open garbage pile in check. Swarming seagulls can make working conditions unsafe and present a health hazard when they pick up garbage, fly away with it, and leave it somewhere else.

After talking with Aaron and admiring the hawk, we got back in our vehicles to drive over to the MRF.

At the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)

As we drove up to the MRF, I spotted a truck pausing momentarily at a weigh station. Recycling and garbage tipping fees are based on weight. The truck is weighed again after it is empty.

Visitors are not allowed to go into the actual MRF so we gathered in the education center. This space has a large glass window where you can watch the action, interactive displays, and rows of chairs in front of a large movie screen.

Cold Canyon Landfill Materials Recovery Facility Education Center
Education Center at the Cold Canyon Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). The window on the left looks into the MRF. Photo – Science Discovery.

Mike lured us away from the window to watch live action feeds on the screen from various cameras mounted inside the MRF.

A heavy equipment operator used a big clunky grabber mounted at the end of an articulating arm to pick up materials from a huge pile and move them to the conveyor belt intake area. The operator also delicately selected unrecyclable materials like plastic bags, box strapping, and garden hoses and dropped them over a low wall into another pile. Later these materials would be picked up and transported to the landfill.

The facility was a maze of conveyor belts, machines, and bins. Materials were being separated by machines and people. Workers standing in small areas (kind of like waist high turrets) adjacent to the conveyor belts removed trash and recyclable materials and tossed them in nearby chutes or bins.

At the end of the process, separated materials enter a baler and come out as strapped cubes of materials like cardboard, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans. I did not see what happened to glass or paper.

The amount of garbage mixed in with recyclable materials was shocking. Mike said that as much as 25% or more of the materials that come into the MRF are not recyclable. In this facility, it was easy to see that it is not equipped to handle things like plastic bags or little bits of anything.

U.S. Recycling Percentages 1970-2015 Table
U.S. recycling percentages 1970-2015 – source U.S. EPA

The California Naturalists were on a tight schedule so we thanked Mike, carpooled back to the entrance, and dispersed.

My Takeaways

Seeing what actually happens to the contents of my garbage and recycling bins made a big impact on me. Faced with the reality I cannot hold on to my wishful thinking anymore. Here are some of my thoughts.

  1. The people who work at the landfill and MRF work in dirty, noisy, and smelly conditions and they know what they are doing.
  2. There is no one sorting through the garbage mound looking for and setting aside reusable or recyclable materials. Everything dumped on the landfill deck goes into the pit.
  3. The MRF is not a precision operation. Some recyclable materials end up accidentally going to the landfill. Some recyclable materials are contaminated by substances or materials that do not get separated out making them unusable and unsellable.

I came away committed to continuing to find ways to reduce the amount of solid waste our household produces and to sort it into the right bins.

It occurs to me, that every week, you, I, and everyone else have an opportunity to positively impact the environment when we take out the trash.

Featured Image at Top: A woman tossing trash over her shoulder is being followed by a wave of garbage – photo credit iStock/ pick-uppath.

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