Pick up trash, save the beach

Volunteers can sign up with local coordinators for the Ocean Conservancy 2018 International Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 15.

Volunteers can help the clean up the beach by taking part in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 15. [Melissa Lyttle | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Volunteers can help the clean up the beach by taking part in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 15. [Melissa Lyttle | Florida Beach Insider photo]

Any conscientious Beach Insider already knows to pick up the bits of garbage that may pop up on the sand at their favorite oceanfront haunts.

But the litter strewn on beaches in Florida and across the globe goes way beyond just plastic bottles and cigarette butts. The trash includes things like car batteries. Fire extinguishers. A washing machine. An entire six-seater golf cart.

We know all these things come out of the water thanks to the International Coastal Cleanup, an annual event coordinated by the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group based in Washington.

The cleanup, which is pegged to the the third Saturday of every September, brings together volunteers worldwide to help take out the trash along the planet’s waterways. The 2017 event boasted almost 800,000 volunteers, who picked up more than 20 million pieces of trash.

TO VOLUNTEER: Go to the Ocean Conservancy’s website to find a local group cleanup.

Nick Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas program for the Ocean Conservancy, said the International Coastal Cleanup got its start in 1986, when Linda Maraniss organized a group cleanup to pick up trash around South Padre Island in Texas. Marannis had the volunteers record what they picked up on data cards.

Now, three decades later, organizations from more than 100 countries combine efforts to continue cleaning waterways and coastlines. Taking all this garbage out of the environment saves wildlife and clears up the ecosystem, which in turn benefits anyone who uses the ocean or local waterways.

“It’s truly a global effort,” Mallos said, pointing out that his group coordinates the event, but it’s the local volunteer groups who do the heavy lifting. “Ocean Conservancy serves as the spider in the middle of the web. … The organizations holding the cleanups, they are the ones who are truly the experts.”

The International Coastal Cleanup involves more than just beaches — boaters, paddlers and divers get in on the action, too. [Eve Edelheit | Florida Beach Insider photo]

These days the volunteers use an app called Clean Swell to keep track of the garbage. The data is aggregated and analyzed into a detailed annual report that can be broken down in any number of ways, including what’s collected and in which state.

Take what came out of Florida’s waters in 2017, for example:

While the International Coastal Cleanup’s focus is largely on beaches and oceanfront locations, any waterway can be the focus of a local event.

Debbie Evenson, the executive director of Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful in Tampa (an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful), said their Hillsborough River and Coastal Cleanup has been going strong for 31 years. The 5,000 volunteers who participate clean about 80 sites across the county, including beaches, lakes, river banks and parks.

Evenson credited sponsors and coordination with city and county governments for being able to reach so many cleanup sites in one day. The Ocean Conservancy supports them in several ways, such as by providing trash bags, which saves Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful money for other events. They also boost awareness of the International Coastal Cleanup and provide a way for potential volunteers to find local groups online.

READ THE REPORT: Click here to see the Ocean Conservancy’s 2018 Building a Clean Swell report.

Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful is only one group pulling together hundreds of events in Florida and thousands across America and the world. (This year the Ocean Conservancy is even encouraging volunteers to come to cleanups in costume, launching the site SuitUpToCleanUp.org, which goes to the their interactive cleanup map.)

Evenson said her group provides any tools volunteers may need, including gloves and the aforementioned trash bags. She also suggests bringing a reusable water bottle, sunscreen, a hat or visor and closed-toe shoes. Check with your local organizer for details.

Finally, since the cleanup happens in the heart of hurricane season, it’s important to keep tropical storm activity in mind.

With Hurricane Florence currently threatening the Carolinas, Florida may not be directly affected, but it’s wise to check with your local group. Jordana Merran, communications manager for the Trash Free Seas program, advises that local coordinators decide on a case-by-case basis, and usually opt to postpone cleanups over canceling them.

Joshua Gillin is Florida Beach Insider’s Beachcomber-in-chief. When he’s not actively looking for a clear spot on the sand with his family, he enjoys hiking, martials arts, comparing drink specials and shopping for American-made products.