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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Resources

Environmental Impact of Sugar

What is our sweet tooth costing the planet?

The environmental impact of growing and refining sugar cane and sugar beets entwines with the health and social consequences of our desire to eat it.

As an environmentalist with a major sweet tooth, I have successfully avoided researching and writing about sugar for many years. It is not that I do not think about sugar or worry about it. I do. Sugar’s environmental footprint does concern me and I am increasingly alarmed about its role in the rise of obesity and other life-threatening diseases in the U.S. and around the world.

What was holding me back? Perhaps it was the hefty time commitment needed for the research phase. More likely it was the fear that I might learn things that would (gulp) require me to change what I eat.

In January, while I was writing 10 Easy and Green Exercise New Year’s Resolutions, I decided to bite the bullet and take on sugar. Publishing a blog post about the environmental impact of sugar became my 2019 New Year’s resolution. I did not quite make my original target publication deadline of June 30, but as you can see I came close.

Along the way, I learned way more than I bargained for so I decided to write two posts. This first post will provide a primer on sugar and an overview of its environmental impact. The second post will discuss health and social implications.

Let’s start with some basic information about sugar.

Sugar 101

Plants Produce Sucrose through Photosynthesis Infographic

Sugar is a generic name for the sweet, colorless, water-soluble compounds that occur naturally in plants and the milk of mammals, including humans.

Green plants produce a type of sugar called sucrose during photosynthesis. (Image credit The Sugar Association.)

You probably know that carbohydrates provide your body with its main source of energy and help keep your brain and internal systems functioning. Sucrose is one type of carbohydrate consisting of glucose and fructose molecules. Food sources of sucrose include fruits, vegetables, and nuts as well as foods with refined sugar added during processing.

Sugar Cane and Sugar Beets

The two major sources of refined (table sugar) are sugar cane and sugar beets because they contain the highest concentration of sucrose (about 16%). Another use for sugar cane and sugar beets is making biofuels and bioplastics (a topic deserving of its own post).

Sugar cane is a tropical grass that reaches 10-20 feet tall. It likes warm humid conditions with lots of rainfall so much of the cultivation takes place in countries near the equator. Sugar cane is a perennial plant meaning that it will grow back from its roots.

Sugar beet is a root crop that produces large off-white beets that can weigh 3-5 pounds each. Temperate climates with warm days and cool nights suit sugar beets but they may be picky about soil and moisture levels. Today, almost all sugar beets in the U.S. are grown from GMO seeds with built-in resistance to the herbicide glyphosate.

Sugar Refining

Sugar cane begins to deteriorate as soon as it is harvested so it must be transported quickly to a processing facility. On the other hand, sugar beets can be stored for several months.

Once the sugar cane or sugar beets arrive at a processing facility the refining process is fairly similar involving a lot of washing, crushing, heating, filtering, clarifying, crystallizing, and drying. This is a water and energy-intensive process.

The end product of the refining process is crystallized sugar.

Byproducts are produced along the way including fiber, press mud, and molasses. After the sugar has been extracted from the crushed cane or beets, the remaining fiber is used to generate electricity, manufactured into paper goods, or pelletized for animal feed. Press mud from the clarifying process is spread on fields as fertilizer. The molasses that is separated from the sugar crystals during centrifuging finds a ready market with the alcoholic beverage industry.

This short video will give you a quick overview of how sugar is made from sugar cane and sugar beets. There are more videos in the resources section at the end of the post.

Now, let’s talk about the environmental impact of sugar.

Environmental Issues

Both sugar cane and sugar beets are grown as monoculture crops meaning that a single type of plant covers large swaths of land uninterrupted by other crops or plants. This industrial agriculture practice is not unique to sugar and results in a host of problems.

Land

Monoculture crops crave land…well…their farmers do.

Aerial View of Sugar Cane Plantations in Northeast Brazil
This aerial view shows sugar cane plantations as far as the eye can see in Northeastern Brazil –photo credit iStock/VelhoJunio.

Nowadays, massive machines and agrochemicals make it possible for farmers to cultivate huge areas of a single crop. This encourages clearing more land for farming. Rainforests, grasslands, and wetlands are being destroyed at an alarming rate to make way for crops such as sugar cane and sugar beets.

Besides storing carbon these critical ecosystems provide habitat for a wide array of flora and fauna, nourish the soil, provide food and medicine for people, filter water, and prevent erosion and flooding.

Pesticides

Lack of biodiversity makes monocrops like sugar cane and sugar beets especially vulnerable to insects, weeds, and diseases which can wipe out an entire crop.

To combat this problem farmers rely on pesticides (poisons) to kill insects, weeds, fungi, nematodes, and rodents. Pesticides are applied to fields by low flying airplanes (crop dusters) and sprayed from tanks pulled by tractors or that are strapped onto the backs of farmworkers.

Pesticides endanger the health of farmworkers, their families, and people living, working, or going to school near fields where pesticides are applied. They kill beneficial insects, non-targeted plants, and wildlife. Toxic runoff from fields pollutes streams, lakes, and oceans as well as groundwater and drinking water supplies.

Many, if not most pests are able to quickly evolve resistance to the pesticides made to kill them. This results in agrochemical companies developing increasingly more powerful pesticides in an unending vicious cycle.

Fertilizers

Growing sugar cane and sugar beets deplete the soil of essential microorganisms and nutrients.

Farmers turn to fertilizers (usually made from fossil fuels) to provide nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but it does not last so fertilizer has to be applied for each new crop.

Wet Season Runoff from Sugar Cane Fields in Queensland, Australia
Wet season runoff from a sugar cane plantation in Queensland, Australia flows toward the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef – photo credit CSIRO. Click here to read the article.

Fertilizers runoff fields into waterways and water bodies. Because the runoff is rich in nutrients it depletes the water of oxygen creating dead zones in streams, estuaries, and lakes where nothing can live. It also contributes to problems like toxic algae blooms in the ocean.

Water

Sugar cane is a thirsty crop with water requirements similar to rice and cotton, sugar beets less so. Producing 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sugar from sugar cane requires 390 gallons of water; sugar beets require 243 gallons of water.

To put this into perspective, one person’s drinking water requirements for slightly more than two years would be fulfilled by the water required to make just 1 kilogram of sugar.

Damming rivers and diverting streams to irrigate sugar cane and sugar beet crops jeopardize the water supply for people who live downstream. Changes in hydrology significantly impact ecosystems and the wildlife whose habitats are altered or destroyed.

Everglades Example

You have probably heard the real estate phrase, “Location, location” meaning that where a property is located is a top priority for buyers. This concept translates to farmland, too. Some locations provide better conditions for crops than others and some result in substantially more environmental damage than others.

Let’s talk about the Florida Everglades.

Sawgrass Prairie at Everglades National Park
Sawgrass prairie at the Everglades National Park – photo credit G. Gardner/Everglades National Park Service.

The Everglades watershed is a one-of-a-kind subtropical wetland ecosystem that has been known as the river of grass ever since Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her book The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947.

The amazing biodiversity of the Everglades draws tourists from all over the world. It teems with wildlife including more than 360 species of birds and an extensive variety of plants from sawgrass to pine trees to orchids.

Florida Panther in Everglades National Park

The Everglades is home to dozens of threatened or endangered species such as the Florida panther (shown here), American crocodile, snail kite, wood stork, and West Indian manatee. (Photo credit Rodney Cammauf/NPS.)

Wetlands filter out pollutants, replenish aquifers and reduce flooding. About a third of Floridians rely on the Everglades watershed for drinking water as do the farmers of hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural fields.

Growing sugar cane is a major contributor to the destruction of the irreplaceable Everglades.

Converting the northern sections of the Everglades watershed into agricultural land, mostly to grow sugar cane, has resulted in a major loss of habitat. Phosphorus runoff from the sugar cane fields and water flow disruptions from Lake Okeechobee represent some of the gravest dangers to the health of the Everglades.

If you are interested in learning more about Florida sugar cane and the multi-billion dollar state and federal project to restore the Everglades, there are links in the resources section.

This is a prime example of how taxpayers end up footing the bill for the damage caused by businesses and industries that externalize health and environmental costs.

Sustainability Efforts

There are some farmers growing sugar cane and sugar beets in a more environmentally and people-friendly manner, but this represents only a small segment of the enormous sugar industry. Organizations supporting these efforts include Bonsucro, Fairtrade, and Rainforest Alliance.

In addition, people concerned about GMOs in their food are pushing for more organic sugar, which precludes the use of GMOs and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

These are steps in the right direction that you can support with your wallet whenever you buy sugar and foods that contain sugar.

Featured Image at Top: Sugar beets growing in a field – photo credit iStock/stevanovicigor.

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Resources

Resources – Everglades