Volunteers target 18 million pounds of trash on Coastal Cleanup Day

Story by Joe Piasecki and Gary Walker

Photo by Damien Noble Andrews; Courtesy of Surfrider Foundation

The submerged plastic bag on the cover of this week’s issue is more dangerous than it looks.

Scientists say the millions of tons of plastic debris floating in the world’s oceans breaks down into trillions of smaller toxic particles that wreak havoc on ecosystems, poisoning not only fish but everything that eats them — including people.

From 9 a.m. to noon Saturday (Sept. 16), thousands of volunteers will gather to remove trash and debris from beaches and watersheds throughout Los Angeles County as part of Coastal Cleanup Day, a global event that has become the world’s largest day of volunteerism to address ocean pollution. Last year as many as 500,000 people removed more than 18 million pounds of trash from sensitive ecosystems throughout the world, according to Heal the Bay, which is coordinating dozens of beach and wetland cleanups throughout Southern California.

Saturday’s coordinated push supplements the nonprofit’s monthly volunteer cleanups at local beaches, which themselves net a surprising amount of trash, all of it logged by the volunteers who remove it. In the first eight months of 2017 alone, volunteers have removed more than 200,000 pieces of trash from Dockweiler, Venice and Santa Monica beaches. The haul included 107,696 pieces of plastic and 38,703 pieces of polystyrene (such as Styrofoam), plus about 30,000 cigarette butts.

There are more than a dozen Westside cleanup locations still in need of volunteers, including wetlands and dune habitat cleanups, scuba dives off the Dockweiler and Santa Monica coasts, and more than a dozen beach cleanups, including Toes Beach and Mother’s Beach. Sign up to participate at healthebay.org.

Coastal Cleanup Day deploys thousands of volunteers to Southern California beaches and wetlands, including more than a dozen events from Dockweiler to Santa Monica.
Photos courtesy of Heal the Bay



This Saturday’s beach cleanup near the Venice Pier has a two-fold mission: not only removing trash, but also using it to influence public policy.

The Surfrider Foundation, Plastic Pollution Coalition, 5 Gyres and Break Free From Plastic Movement are asking volunteers to separate out the polystyrene waste they find on the beach and mail it state legislators — specifically those who voted down legislation state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) to phase out the use of polystyrene food packaging that cannot be recycled or composted.

Polystyrene, which is the basic component of Styrofoam, has been found in the stomachs of dead ocean animals, which commonly mistake particles for food. California annually produces 3.2 billion pounds of polystyrene for packaging and food containers as well as insulation and electronics, according to Heal the Bay.

“Polystyrene pieces routinely land in the top five items that we pick up. The foam polystyrene can turn into little pellets that look like fish eggs and is one of the more harmful trash items that we find. And there are readily available alternatives that are recyclable,” Heal the Bay Vice President Sarah Sikich said.

Organizers hope to get the attention of reluctant policymakers and increase their awareness of the environmental hazards associated with polystyrene, explained 5 Gyres cofounder and global strategies director Anna Cummins.

“We’re going to target the ones that need a little extra encouragement. There may be some that just need to know that their constituents care,” she said.

To date, more than 100 municipalities in California have banned polystyrene, including Santa Monica and Culver City.

Allen says he understands why 5Gyres and their counterparts are advocating sending polystyrene debris directly to lawmakers.

“It’s reflective of how frustrated people are seeing the litter on the beaches that come from polystyrene. Sure, it’s an aggressive move. But they’re trying to dramatize this issue,” Allen said.

Venice Neighborhood Council member Hollie Stenson applauds the plan to send polystyrene refuse to Sacramento.

“Coastal Cleanup Days like this are so vital, not just because of the impact of the actual cleanup, but the message that it sends. Looking at this issue with a macro lens can be overwhelming for most people, but true change can occur when people take smaller, direct actions like this,” said Stenson, who chaired this year’s Green Venice Festival.

“I hope this salient action of sending all the polystyrene debris to lawmakers who voted against Sen. Allen’s bill has the intended effect, and is a wakeup call to the individuals who seem to be dead set against their own, and their communities, self-interest,” she said.

Allen is considering approaches for reintroducing polystyrene legislation next year.

“We’re trying to figure out a strategy to get a majority the next time,” he said. “People around the state want to see us get serious about ocean pollution.”



Directly beneath the LAX flight path lies Southern California’s largest contiguous coastal dune ecosystem, the greatest threat to which is not plastic or Styrofoam litter but invasive, non-native species muscling out native flora supporting threatened animal species.

About two-thirds of the LAX Dunes between Pershing Drive and Vista Del Mar is set aside as a habitat restoration area for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly; the northern 104 acres is less pristine, the ghostly remnants of a defunct neighborhood still experiencing the impacts of human development.

That’s where the Bay Foundation is working to strengthen the native ecosystem by organizing volunteers to remove invasive plants by hand over a 48-acre span across from Trask Triangle Park.

Back in 2014, local Girl Scout Ayanna Neal founded Friends of the LAX Dunes as part of an award-winning service project, and the Bay Foundation has been continuing monthly cleanups while she’s away at college — an effort resuming Saturday as part of Coastal Cleanup Day.

The invasive plants that threaten the LAX Dunes are serial offenders throughout sensitive California ecosystems, explains Bay Foundation watershed programs coordinator Rod Abbott: iceplant, filaree, European black mustard and wild radish, West Australian geraldton carnation weed, and Russian thistle — aka the common tumbleweed, an 1860s stowaway that first arrived in the New World with grain seed shipments to the Dakotas.

“These guys don’t play fair with the natives,” says Abbott, explaining that they crowd out and steal moisture from native plants that support rare native species like the California legless lizard, San Diego horn lizard and the El Segundo Blues.

The good news is that most of the bad guys have tap root systems that are easy to pull out with common garden tools or by hand, though Abbott does acknowledges that weeding 48 acres as you would a garden is a pretty daunting task.

But the efforts have made a noticeable difference — when volunteers focus on removing all the invasives intertwined with patches of struggling natives, Abbot typically finds those natives thriving upon his return visit.

And all that spot work adds up to a larger picture of preserving the dunes as a contiguous ecosystem.

“The dunes are host to amazing biodiversity,” says Abbott, “but as open spaces dwindle and plant regimes are fractured, you get breaks in biodiversity. Keeping it together helps support pollinators and protects the intrinsic value of what’s here.”



When newly arrived Playa del Rey homeowner Jeannie Moody launched the Jungle Cleanup in 1977, she didn’t expect the effort to beautify her beachfront neighborhood would blossom into an annual celebration reuniting friends and neighbors.

Forty years later, Moody will be the guest of honor at this Saturday’s reenergized Jungle Cleanup and community barbecue.

“I’m very honored and flattered,” she said. “I’m grateful that we’re doing something rather than nothing at all.”

Jungle Cleanup participants will gather at 8 a.m. outside 7025 Trolleyway and work until noon, with a post-cleanup community beach barbecue following from noon to 5 p.m., with local Americana roots rocker Rich Sheldon giving a free concert. Nonprofit event stewards Friends of the Jungle is also raffling off tickets for next year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at Mo’s Place and the Prince O’Whales.

Naming Moody as the guest of honor serves two purposes: to honor her for her decades of community service, and as a peace offering to Moody and her dozens of supporters who boycotted last year’s cleanup due to disagreement over short-term vacation rentals, said Friends of the Jungle’s Jan Haagen.

Neighborly bonds were stretched to the breaking point amid allegations of neighbors complaining to city officials about neighbors running vacation rentals, which are illegal in most residential areas.

“It’s a good time to look at all of the things we’ve overcome and toward reestablishing friendships. We want to extend an olive branch to all of our friends and neighbors and maintain the integrity of Playa del Rey,” Haagen said.


To join the cleanup, email friendsofthejungle@gmail.com.