The beautiful beaches in Humboldt County are the focus of Coastal Clean Up Month. Even though most trash originates on land, everything flows to our beaches and becomes a problems for marine life.

Cleaning Up Our Act

September’s Coastal Clean Up Month - Where it started and how it’s going

California’s Coastal Clean Up Month, formerly Clean Up Day, is upon us. This beloved California tradition is dedicated to cleaning up our cities and streets, as well as focusing our attention on one of our prized ecological areas, the beach.

The California Coastal Commission (CCC), established in 1972 and made permanent in the California Coastal Act of 1976, is responsible for, “the biggest, single day volunteer event on the planet” according to the Guinness Book of World Records. This momentous day has evolved from a single day to a month-long volunteer extravaganza with 74,000 volunteers collecting nearly a million pounds of garbage from our waterways in 2019. As the movement has grown, efforts have turned inland where the majority of waste originates.

Data collection has been a central force in the decades of trash clean ups. Throughout the years, the CCC has found that up to 85% of trash collected on beaches originates on land.

Eben Schwartz is the Marine Debris Program Manager and Outreach Manager for the CCC.

“If the trash is coming from land then we should try to stop it where it starts, so we started spreading our cleanups inland. We’re now at the point where we’re cleaning just about everywhere in California,” Schwartz said.

Through data collection, the CCC has found that the worst polluter is cigarette butts, an incredibly toxic form of plastic pollution. Don’t be fooled, although the material that makes up cigarette butts is known as cellulose acetate, this is not a plant based product. Cellulose acetate is a plastic, primarily a mixture of rayon and paper. Cigarette butts make up the largest category of collected items next to food and beverage containers.

“When you look at categories of debris that’s out there, by far the largest category is food and beverage packaging. Basically you take a convenience store and shake it upside down, and anything that falls out is what we’re finding in our environment,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz is primarily responsible for public education to get people involved in coastal stewardship, mostly through large volunteer events like Coastal Clean Up Day. Unfortunately, the pandemic has taken its toll. Data, although less robust than past years, shows that pandemic trash and single use items such as plastic bags have impacted our beaches and waterways. Since the 2014 plastic bag ban, plastic bags slowly receded down on the list of the top trash items. During the pandemic, when the ban was lifted for just two short months, bags jumped right back to the sixth position on the top ten list.

“It really did show what an impact the pandemic was having on our environment,” Schwartz said. “The other interesting tidbit was that PPE – masks and gloves, but mostly masks – came in as the twelfth most picked up item in 2020, which is shockingly high for an item that has just recently been introduced to our society.”

Along with the pandemic’s uptick in production and discard of plastic products, Schwartz points out that producers of these products need to take more responsibility for the trash they introduce to the public.

Locally, the North Coast Environmental Center (NEC) also points to producers to take more responsibility for the garbage they produce.

Ivy Munnerlyn, the Coastal Programs Coordinator for NEC said, “Preventing [trash] from being created in the first place is a lot more effective in the long run.”

NEC has worked with the city of Arcata for their single use plastic ban. Statewide, groups have been working to create extended producer responsibility bans which would tax those actually responsible for creating the waste. Caroline Griffith is co-executive director and EcoNews journalist for NEC, these extended producer responsibility acts raise the money to implement local and actual recycling programs instead of shipping plastic waste to developing nations. These bans also incentivize consumers and producers alike to utilize other products.

Statewide beach clean ups started in 1985, but the city of Arcata predated statewide efforts by over ten years with the Arcata Recycling Center, boasted as the birthplace of beach clean ups. This noble effort, unfortunately, was diverted as the nature of recycling fell to a capitalistic venture.

“Slowly, recycling became an industry. That really shifted how things worked,” Griffith said. “They wanted to recover materials versus actually making things into new materials. There’s that financial incentive that really changed it.”

Although the history and current reality of plastic is a highly complex issue, there are ways for beach lovers and climate activists alike to get involved this month. Local cleanups are scheduled every weekend in September, and people can sign up through the NEC website,, to attend cleanups in their neighborhoods. September is a wonderful month to get involved but, as Griffith puts it, cleanups should be much more common practice.

“We should be doing this all the time,” Griffith said. “It’s fun to have one big event where we all do it together, but really making a habit of it and doing it regularly is the most effective. Then you actually do see those waste patterns in your neighborhood – you know where that waste is coming from.”

Armed with information, you can go to local businesses responsible for making waste and let them know what the problem is. Hopefully, these businesses will be responsive and work with you to make changes.

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