Trashing the trash

All photos by Christopher Connelly

Spike tugged on a tire to wrest it from the silt of the San Francisco Bay. A television cameraman filming him put down the camera to help out and together they pulled, splashed and grunted until they broke the suction holding the tire firmly under the water near Meeker Slough in Richmond. It was hard work, and Spike—his full name is Steve Spiker—sliced his hand in the process. Finally he rolled the muck-filled tire onto his kayak to bring it back to land. Just one more piece of trash at the 26th Annual California Coastal Cleanup.

Revital Katznelson scales the rocks at Meeker Slough to search out garbage.

Thirteen hundred volunteers of all ages combed the coastline for litter at five sites throughout Contra Costa County on Saturday. A flotilla of kayakers plucked trash from areas not accessible by land.

The volunteers collected more than 3,700 pounds of trash and recyclable waste. They picked up litter of all kinds, and focused particularly on the lightweight plastics and Styrofoam that both take centuries to decompose.

Plastic bags and food wrappers made up the largest components of the haul, with plastic bottles coming in a close third. Volunteers also found numerous tennis balls, a couple of basketballs, a few plastic chairs—even a surfboard, which event organizers say will be reunited with its owner.

One teen volunteering with the Richmond Half-Steppers, a track and field team, grimaced and said the worst thing she had to pick up was a waterlogged diaper.

Jill Davis brought her family out to help and said it’s important for her son to see the effects of litter, “We always pick up garbage on our way home from school, but seeing it like this and seeing how much there is…it’s a good lesson. It’s an eye opener.” Lodged in the rocks that line the coast around the park, the Davis family and other volunteers found ample evidence of the waste of modern life. Cigarette butts, disposable coffee cups, plastic bags, bottles and food wrappers wash out from storm drains and up from the Bay to clutter the natural beauty of the coastline.

Volunteers sort trash into recyclables and waste after it's been picked up.

Volunteers sort trash into recyclables and waste after it's been picked up.

Linda Hunter heads the Watershed Project, one of the groups that organized the Contra Costa County cleanup sites. She said the most important takeaway from the event was not just that it feels good to beautify the parks, but also that the smallest pieces of trash on the streets connect directly to the big pollution problems on our coasts, in the Bay and in the world’s oceans.

Every year, people ask Hunter where the trash comes from. “It gets there through your storm drain,” she said. “ If you see a plastic bag on your sidewalk, and you don’t pick it up, it ends up in the storm drain and drains out into the Bay.”

From there, the Bay’s currents circulate the waste. Some of it lands on beaches throughout the Bay Area, some sinks to the bottom, and some is carried by currents out past the Golden Gate Bridge to the Pacific Ocean.

Trash in the ocean follows currents out to the ocean north of Hawaii, where it mixes with debris from boats and ships, and decades worth of waste from the coasts that ring the Pacific. The huge patch of densely polluted water spans hundreds of miles, and is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Mary Crowley of Project Kaisei, which runs expeditions to gather data on the trash vortex, calls the gyre ‘plastic soup,’ because plastics make up a huge component of the garbage patch. But she’s seen all kinds of trash in her expeditions out there, from car fenders to nets from old ships.

Crowley said cleaning up the ocean is a huge job, but not impossible. “We live in an amazing age of innovation,” she said, “and it’s also not rocket science. We know that we need to keep the trash from going into the oceans, and we need to clean up some of what’s there.”

Volunteers tallied not just the amount of garbage collected, but the types of waste as well.

Richmond author David Helvarg literally wrote the book on the topic: 50 Ways to Save the Ocean. He said the most important thing people can do to change the cycle of pollution is a simple one: Go to the beach. “You’re only going to protect that which you love,” he said.

However children reach a sense of entitlement to their beaches and oceans, Helvarg said, it lasts. “You see a kid knocked down by a wave and when he stands up there is this moment where they realize that there’s something bigger than them and they engage.”

With 32 miles of coastline, more than any city in the Bay Area, Richmond offers plenty of opportunities to go to the beach, and fall in love with the ocean.

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