Turning Trash into Treasure

Posted September 16, 2015 by The Argonaut in This Week

Coastal Cleanup Day is an opportunity to rediscover the natural beauty in our own backyard

By Christina Campodonico

Kids comb Santa Monica Beach for trash during last year’s Coastal Cleanup Day Photo courtesy of Heal the Bay

Kids comb Santa Monica Beach for trash during last year’s Coastal Cleanup Day
Photo courtesy of Heal the Bay
















A fully submerged wedding dress, a skull from a science lab model skeleton, discarded car keys — these are just a few of the things that Heal the Bay volunteers and staff have discovered during beach and watershed cleanups over the past 26 years.

The jury’s still out on whether one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but it’s a mantra that could lead to some unexpected discoveries, including the Westside’s natural beauty.

As many as 10,000 volunteers are expected to descend on 50 cleanup sites throughout Southern California on Saturday morning as part of Coastal Cleanup Day, an annual ocean stewardship effort observed around the world.

Whether by land or sea, Westside volunteers will have their pick of ways to take out the trash — literally. Cleanup sites include a scuba diving station at Santa Monica Pier, a kayak clean up in Marina del Rey and a habitat restoration effort on the LAX Dunes above Dockweiler Beach.

For Heal the Bay, having these unique clean ups is a way to follow the litter, wherever it may lead.

“We have this variety of options for people because we’re going where the trash is,” says Heal the Bay President Alix Hobbs. “We have inland clean ups, so we can tackle the problem before it gets into the storm drains and out to the ocean. [We have] beach cleans ups for the trash that’s already been introduced into the storm drain system and is now plaguing our beaches. We have underwater clean ups to remove any trash that is already under the water. And then the kayak clean ups are getting the trash that’s floating on the water.”

While most of the trash that volunteers recover is cigarette butts or plastic bags, some of it is quite extraordinary.

Meredith McCarthy, director of programs for Heal the Bay and a master scuba diving instructor, is no stranger to finding odd objects on underwater dives. McCarthy recalls finding a pumpkin filled with hardboiled eggs, Santeria offerings wrapped in velvet and even a briefcase packed with graham crackers.

“We decided that must have been a prop from a movie, or someone was trying to do some kind of deal where they walked in with a suitcase of money and didn’t have [enough] money to fill the case,” says McCarthy with a laugh.

While eye-catching objects like this invite some good-humored speculation from Heal the Bay staff and volunteers, it’s actually microscopic litter that may cause the most harm to marine life.

“A Styrofoam cup in Whittier [can] become 4,000 tiny Styrofoam balls on the beach in Long Beach,” McCarthy says, explaining that pollutants like PCB and mercury are attracted to Styrofoam and plastics like magnets, making them dangerous for sea creatures to eat.

“It’s a little ball with a toxic icing on it,” McCarthy says. “Those little balls look exactly like plankton … so animals are looking for these colored things to eat and so they end up with a belly full of plastic.”

But on cleanup dives, McCarthy has also noticed the curious ways in which sea life adapts to the unnatural debris that ends up at the bottom of Santa Monica Bay.

Hermit crabs, shore crabs, snails and barnacles are just a sampling of the miniature marine creatures that make a waterlogged chip bag, bottle or tin can on the sea floor home. So beware of hitchhikers in your cargo, McCarthy warns.

“You always have to make sure that you shake out those cans, otherwise you’ll end up bringing home an octopus,” she says, adding that a natural habit is preferable to a man-made one.

Longtime Heal the Bay volunteer and kayaker Vicki Pasek knows that well, having been part of a team that recovered a glass wine bottle filled with “sea critters” last year.

“It had been in the water so long that it had its own microenvironment going on, with barnacles growing on it as well as plenty of moss and other plant and algae life,” said Pasek, who will lead a kayak cleanup launching from
the Del Rey Yacht Club in Marina del Rey.

Armed with buckets, nets and gloves, the team of 10 to 20 kayak volunteers will fish debris out of the surrounding waters, depending on where the current takes them.

As far as finding anything strange on the LAX Dunes above Dockweiler Beach, only “time will tell,” says Tom Ford, executive director of The Bay Foundation, which is partnering up with Heal the Bay and Friends of the LAX Dunes on Coastal Cleanup Day.

For this restoration effort on the largest expanse of coastal dunes in Southern California, the real treasure-hunting task will be sifting through a 48-acre patchwork of both native plants and invasive species that threaten the ecological health of the dunes. Native plants like the Coastal Buckwheat are essential to the survival of the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly, for which the dunes are protected. Invasive species such as mustard crowd out these native plants and suck up much-needed water.

“Knowing the good plants from the bad plants, knowing which ones not to step on, that’s the trickier part of it,” Ford said. Staff from the Bay Foundation will be on hand to help volunteers discern the native plants from the non-native ones.

For Karina Johnston, formerly a restoration biologist and now the director of watershed programs at The Bay Foundation, the true treasures are to be found in the site’s natural beauty.

“People often find interesting insects, birds, wildlife, in addition to a really spectacular view of the Santa Monica Bay,” says Johnston, who will lead volunteers through the dune site in small groups. Legless lizards and California gnatcatchers, a type of bird, are some rare species that visitors may spot as they weed through plants and take in ocean views.

In the end, it might not be what volunteers find, but what they take away from the experience that really counts.

This year, Heal the Bay’s cleanup effort offers giveaways to help volunteers conserve water at home. Heal the Bay will be handing out buckets to volunteers in order to reduce waste produced by one-time cleaning supplies, as well as
educate the public on water conservation.

“The drought is providing an opportunity for us to do further education on smart water [use] for Los Angeles,” says Hobbs. “We’re all educating people on what they can do with those buckets once they go home.”

Some of those things might be collecting rainwater or excess H2O from the shower to water plants, she says.

As the drought persists, a little extra water may be the most valuable treasure of all.



Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve
303 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey

Ballona Creek at Overland Avenue
4990 Overland Ave., Culver City

Ballona Creek at Sepulveda Boulevard
5000 Sepulveda Blvd, Culver City

Del Rey Yacht Club (Kayak Cleanup)
13900 Palawan Way, Marina del Rey

Dockweiler State Beach, Tower 58
12501 Vista Del Mar, Playa del Rey

Dockweiler State Beach, Tower 54
11999 Vista Del Mar, Playa del Rey

Toes Beach, Tower 42
115 Culver Blvd, Los Angeles

Toes Beach, Tower 40
6208 Pacific Ave., Playa del Rey

LAX Dunes

Trask Avenue at Waterview Street,
Playa del Rey


Santa Monica Beach at Bay Street
Inkwell Monument, 103 Bay St.,
Santa Monica

Santa Monica Beach, Tower 27
2600 Barnard Way, Santa Monica

Santa Monica Pier, North Side
330 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica

Santa Monica Pier, South Side
Tower 1550, 258 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica

Venice Pier
3100 Ocean Front Walk, Venice

Venice Beach , Tower 21
2100 Ocean Front Walk, Venice

Venice Beach at Rose Ave.
300 Ocean Front Walk, Venice

One Comment

    Celeste Lamosse

    Was so sorry to hear of Vicki Pasek’s recent unexpected passing. She was an individual who cared very much about others and the environment.

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