I was at Santa Monica Beach about 9 AM with gloves, trash bags, hat, sea breeze in my face, sand in my shoes and a determination to leave the beach a little cleaner than I'd found it. The day was a combination of fun, exercise, exhilaration followed by a sinking feeling that all the effort was a mere drop in the ocean (no pun intended). I was assigned to a group of 5 others, all of whom were family members. I was so impressed that a mother and father brought their children (ages 8, 9 and 11) all the way from East Los Angeles, to take part in this effort. I asked what inspired them to volunteer. Marco, the father, told me once a month they pack a meal and spend most of the day at the beach just to get a break from the heat and congestion of their neighborhood. Besides, it gave them an extra opportunity to visit the beach and a chance to say thank you to the beach and ocean. Talk about your better angels! I mentioned that I live less than a mile from the beach, the 3 children said I was lucky. I told them I remind myself every morning how lucky I am and I thought to myself that I never travel inland for a "break" from the ocean. Indeed I am lucky.
I was less astonished by the mountains of bagged trash we ended up with than what kind of trash it was. There were pieces of clothing, especially socks, various tubes of sunscreen, pieces of jewelry (hoop earrings, toe ring, ankle bracelet), tubes of lip balm, butane lighters, cigarette butts, yogurt containers, plastic bottles, bundles of matted fishing line, bottle caps, tampons and thousands of plastic grocery bags, etc (what ever is in your garbage today is an example of what we found on the beach). What was distressing to me were the huge number of plastic six pack rings. Long ago I learned those six pack rings are lethal to birds, fish, turtles, all marine life in general. The ring hole is just big enough to get caught around a creature's body part and cut into flesh. When ever I see one on the ground, I pick it up and rip it so they become a single large, less lethal trap for wildlife. There were so many, though not as many as the number of plastic bags, that I felt a sense of finger-in-the-dike-pessimism. Some of this trash was left by accident, some flew on the breeze from an open garbage bin, down an alley and onto the beach. Most of it washed up on the beach like an undelivered gift returned to sender for disposal.
Nevertheless, the noble and worthwhile effort to clean up the trash around beaches, rivers and waterways should not be tinged with anything but enthusiasm and should expand even further. It's a well organized national effort and one in which I felt privileged to participate. One that should, perhaps, be expanded to more than once a year. There will always be those who don't care about what their trash does to their own environment and there will be those who do. I choose to be one who cares. Cleaning up garbage bags and six pack rings when you're by yourself declares a kind of unwillingness to abandon hope. When you're part of a larger group like yesterday, focused on the same effort, that single ray of hope opens up to tidal wave.
I know there are regular mechanical sweeps of our streets and the beach to collect trash but I also know there are numerous trash barrels on the beach into which many people will not bother to deposit their trash. I learned a great deal yesterday up-front-and-personal about how much trash litters our beaches and I also learned how much damage our collective trash can cause. It's one thing to read about it or imagine it -- it's a whole different matter to repeatedly pick it up, smell it, hold it in your hands, be disgusted by it and defiantly stuff it into a garbage bag and take it away like a convicted criminal. Just because we bag, bury or burn our trash does not minimize the damage caused to people, wildlife and ecosystems. It occurs to me that bigger solutions are needed. Recycling is wonderful but it's at the mercy of the economy. When the economy is bad, fewer manufacturers purchase it, the price for recyclable paper, plastic, glass and aluminum trash goes down and becomes less attractive for those who collect and turn it in. The effort to ban plastic grocery bags seems worth while. I bring my cloth bags with me when I grocery shop now, but from what I've seen. most people still use plastic bags. If most shoppers don't bring cloth bags with them, how many return their plastic bags to those collection bins in front of grocery stores? I suspect they just end up in garbage bins and easily fly out when the bin is turned upside down and dumped into the trash collection truck.
This is no news to environmentalists but my participation yesterday personalized the experience. As a child, Rachel Carson was the first writer who opened my eyes to the philosophy of human responsibility toward our planet. A quote of hers comes to mind:
Bagging trash beside three delightful, thoughtful, well-mannered children (Joe Wilson could have learned from these youngsters) and their loving parents was the best thing I could have done with my time yesterday. I may have left the beach a little cleaner yesterday, but more importantly I came home a better person.