Every great beach day starts with the right spot—close to the water’s edge but not threatened by the tide and far enough from others to avoid runaway beach balls. And nothing ruins a prime stretch of sand faster than a rusted can, 17 plastic bottle tops, 8 cigarette butts, a tangle of fishing line, and a pile of unidentified plastic and Styrofoam bits.
Living within three blocks of a coast, I love a good beach cleanup. I stuff a trash bag in my pocket every time I head to the shore, and mark my calendar for days when I can pick up garbage with like-minded neighbors during an organized clean. But as dedicated as I am to my own sands, it rarely occurs to me to collect water-bottle caps and six-pack rings when I’m at Cala Gonone in Sardinia, Thailand’s Ko Tao, or even Malpais on Costa Rica’s northwest coast.
Cleaning up other people’s trash while on vacation feels more like a chore than an activity, but actually, it’s easier and more enjoyable than most would imagine. If you spend just two minutes picking up around you before sprawling out with a sun hat and a good book, the rest of your beach day will be a cleaner, better experience. And if you take it a step further and join an organized cleanup, you’ll connect with locals and forge a stronger bond with your coastal destination. In the end, it doesn’t matter how you chose to participate—only that you do.
Every little bit counts According to Ocean Conservancy—a nonprofit environmental advocacy group looking for science-based solutions to protect the ocean—more than 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean each year, affecting nearly 700 species of marine life. (That doesn’t even include the glass, metal, and fibrous trash.) And we’re not simply talking about bottles and bags: During its annual International Coastal Cleanup, Ocean Conservancy keeps track of some of its weirdest finds, which include hot tubs, unicycles, and sewing machines.
But ocean trash isn’t just an eyesore—it’s a serious threat to a large ecosystem. Animals can become entangled in garbage or ingest microplastics—plastics that have degraded into tiny pieces—causing injuries and deaths. And it affects us too: Plastic has been found in more than a quarter of fish sampled from seafood markets around the world and threatens as many “unspoiled” shorelines as it does touristed ones. The remote Cocos (Keeling) Islands, for example, off Australia’s coast, home to only 600 people, are now covered in almost 263 tons of plastic, carried there from all over the world by ocean currents.
Both Ocean Conservancy and the Surfrider Foundation—another nonprofit environmental group that organizes regular beach cleanups—believe that any effort to pick up trash on a beach helps keep people mindful of how they handle their own disposables, a concept that is as important abroad as it is at home. Anna Kauffman, a volunteer with the San Francisco chapter of Surfrider, says that while beach cleanups do make a dent at a local level, they have a much larger impact on awareness.
And the larger the effort, the wider awareness spreads.
Take, for example, Afroz Shah and Versova Beach in Mumbai. In 2015, appalled by the piles of rotting garbage that made the beach unusable, Shah and an elderly neighbor began cleaning up the beach. Soon, others joined in. The community of 1,500 volunteers is still fighting an uphill battle, but in less than two years, they’d picked up 11,684,500 pounds of trash.
Headline stories like Shah’s are feel-good reminders that there are organizations around the world doing the same thing on a regular basis. The 177 chapters of the Surfrider Foundation have active campaigns across the United States that focus on topics such as banning plastics and protecting areas from offshore drilling. They also organize hundreds of beach cleanups a year. According to Kauffman, the San Francisco chapter hosts at least three organized cleanups each month. “Multiply this by Surfrider’s many chapters and volunteers,” she says, “and you have quite an impact.”
Perhaps the best-known organized clean is Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup. Thus far, the event has collected almost 300 million pounds of garbage. Volunteers in more than 100 countries participate each year not only to collect trash but also to record and catalog each item. The resulting data helps create a better understanding of our trash patterns and informs the organization’s future projects.
Get involved abroad
The camaraderie of a group cleanup (and its provided equipment) is what makes it the most appealing way for travelers to lend a hand, and luckily there are groups around the globe that organize regular events. If you’re traveling in the United States, the Surfrider Foundation’s local chapters list upcoming events on their individual websites. In Australia, check out Take 3 for the Sea. Look up the Marine Conservation Society or Surfers Against Sewage in the United Kingdom. The European Environment Agency keeps a list of active organizations that organize cleanups on that continent, and Trash Hero is a great resource for cleanups in Southeast Asia.
Ask your hotel, too; many coastal resorts organize regular events that guests can join.
And whether you’re at home or traveling, this year’s International Coastal Cleanup will take place on September 21.
Four easy ways to clean the beach on your own
Pick it up
If you’re simply looking to pick up a few egregious items of trash on your next beach day, Kauffman recommends focusing on plastic items that could cause entanglement or become a choking hazard to wildlife, such as plastic six-pack rings, plastic bags, bottle caps, shotgun wads, and fishing lines.
She also recommends that novice cleaners use caution when picking up and disposing of sharp objects like broken glass or needles. Even if you have gloves and can handle such items, be careful of how you dispose of them. Broken glass, for example could be put into a found discarded coffee cup or wrapped up tightly in a newspaper.
Use proper disposal methods
While many beaches have public use trash cans, they’re not always the most effective way of disposing of garbage. Kauffman notes that it’s best to not leave garbage at the beach unless it’s in an enclosed container, particularly if there is food that wildlife might find. (Pro tip: There may be local infrastructure to help you. In the United Kingdom, an organization called 2 Minute Beach Clean has helped erect “clean stations” with trash bags, trash picker tools, and disposal receptacles.)
Make it fun
Gamify your collecting with Ocean Conservancy’s Webby-nominated app, Clean Swell. The app allows you to catalog everything you pick up on your own and adda the information to the organization’s database. You can also track the amount of trash you’ve picked up and the distance you’ve cleaned and win badges along the way.
And go ahead and #humblebrag about it on social media. I can attest to the fact that it’s nice to have strangers cheering you on either online or in person, but it’s even better when friends comment on a photo, saying they’ve always wanted to get involved too. As Kauffman says, “Be proud, take pictures, and join the global community of ocean advocates.”