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San Diego County  Beach Cleanup Data Report 2017

The Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter and San Diego Coastkeeper partner each year to conduct a series of public beach cleanups, averaging four per month, in order to address the issue of trash in our ocean and on our beaches. In addition to these cleanups, both organizations also host special cleanup events and empower individual volunteers to host their own. These events combined have lead to the removal of over 91,178 pounds of trash from our beaches and waterways since 2007.

In 2017, the program gained even more momentum than in years past, seeing a jump in volunteerism with 8,190 individuals coming out to clean the beaches. The total item count decreased slightly from last year, with corresponding decreases in specific items of interest, such as cigarette butts. This year, 8,190 volunteers removed 118,018 items of trash, weighing 9,352 pounds total, from along our coastline. In 2016, 6,333 volunteers removed 174,542 items of trash, weighing 9,399 pounds total. While we applaud the increases pounds per volunteer effort this year and are heartened to see decreases in certain trash types, we are still troubled by the amount of debris being collected overall.

In 2017, the area with the most trash removed per volunteer was Mission Bay with 3.57 pounds per volunteer. In many of the years past, we have seen Mission Bay’s beaches come out first with the most trash removed per volunteer. We can likely relate this to the relatively high amount of human use that Mission Bay receives all year long. It is common for visitors, friends and families alike to frequent the parks of Mission Bay for events, parties, gatherings and activities. Volunteers did an amazing job removing debris from Mission Bay this year, making it the area with the highest total weight of debris removed - 2,020 pounds, to be precise - across the cleanups we held there.

Most Trash per Volunteer Effort

Total Weight Removed

54.5% of debris collected was plastic.

The percent of plastic found in the total items collected increased over six points this year. This count, however, does not include cigarette butts, which contain a plastic foam filter. When cigarette butts are included among the plastic items, that percentage jumps to 82.7 percent. Plastics are particularly damaging to the marine environment, as they do not biodegrade, and are easily mistaken as food and ingested by wildlife. Many of the plastics collected were pieces less than one inch in diameter, and much of it was expanded polystyrene foam, or Styrofoam®.

73,696 fewer items were collected in 2017 than 2016.

2017 saw a bit of a decrease in the total number of items removed, despite the increase in volunteers collecting beach trash compared to last year. Item counts include trash of many sizes, from the tiniest shards of plastic food wrappers, to the largest discarded comforters or crates, and everything in between. The amount of trash on our beaches continues to be staggering, and despite the heartening decrease, there is still plenty of work left to be done.

Cigarette butts topped the list again in 2017.

Yet again, cigarettes and cigarette butts were the most prevalent type of debris found at our beach cleanups. In 2016, volunteers removed 59,144 cigarette butts from our beaches. This year, that number dropped to 32,247, which may be sign that citizens are becoming more responsible with their cigarette butts. Even with such a dramatic decrease in the number collected, cigarette butts are still by far the most common item we pick up at beach cleanups. Littered butts continue to be a major concern for the health of San Diego County beaches. Cigarette butts are non-biodegradable and leach toxins into the water, poisoning marine life. They also move with ease through the City’s stormwater system, meaning a cigarette butt need not be dropped directly at the beach in order to find its way there eventually.

Intact plastic bags continue to be one of the less common items.

The total number of fully intact plastic bags found was 2,330, representing just 2 percent of total items removed. This continues the trend of decreases in bag totals. In 2016, volunteers removed 4,302 bags, and in 2015, volunteers removed 4,552 bags. This trend may indicate a decrease in the use of plastic bags, the success of the recent statewide bag ban, or an increase in recycling or proper disposal. This number likely also reflects the possibility that bags, being very light and mobile, do not tend to stay on flat surfaces such as a sandy beaches for long before moving into the water. Bags are a far more common item in canyon and riverbed cleanups, where they tend to get tangled on rocks or vegetation. Due to their disproportionately dangerous impacts on marine wildlife, limiting plastic bags should continue to be encouraged and enacted. It should also be noted that the thin nature of plastic bags mean they are easily broken down into smaller pieces, and these small pieces would be counted as “other plastics” by cleanup volunteers. It is still likely that plastic bags are a larger environmental problem than our stats are showing, but we are heartened by the decrease in overall item count. We are curious to see how the recently-passed statewide single-use plastic bag ban will continue to impact these numbers over the next several years, and hope to see plastic bags become a rarity not only on our beaches, but in our canyons, communities, and in our ocean as well.

Top 3 items of concern:   
  1. Cigarette Butts (32,247)
  2. Plastic Foam (12,575)
  3. All Other Plastic Debris (50,674)

The usual unusuals

In addition to collecting data on common beach debris such as cigarette butts, plastic foam, and water bottles, volunteers are also asked to note any “unusual items” they find during the course of the cleanup. Over the years we have noticed some “unusual” items documented so frequently that they have become known as our “usual unusuals.” Our top three unusual items in 2017 were consistent with those in years past: condoms, tampons, and glow sticks. While we can only guess at the reasons for the prevalence of the first two, glow sticks are frequently used in night fishing as a fish aggregation device, and are being discarded or littered after use. A few other fun and bizarre finds from 2017 - as reported by our cleanup volunteers -  include a “plastic hippo,” “short shorts,” a fidget spinner, Axe body spray, and a “Spanish love letter,” to name a few.