In San Diego We Love Our Beaches – So Why Do We Leave Them Looking Like This?

(A few weeks ago I did a post about raw sewage and trash from Tijuana contaminating San Diego beaches.  The mess in this post isn’t from a foreign source – it’s local.)

San Diego County has beautiful beaches, and in the summer they’re a prime destination for residents and visitors.

On July 4 that influx of people expands, enjoying the water and sand and sun all day…

And fireworks at night, including the Big Bay Boom:

And the next morning our beaches look like the picture at the top, and like this:

There’s even an official name for it:

The “Surfrider Foundation” in the above image is a nonprofit that:

“…is dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean, waves and beaches, for all people, through a powerful activist network.”

For a number of years Surfrider has hosted the July 5 Morning After Mess Beach Cleanup Series:

And every year – unfortunately – there’s always plenty of litter to clean up on San Diego’s beaches.  For July 5, 2022:

Volunteers – bless them – turn out every year to clean up what others leave behind.  This year 429 volunteers picked up the better part of a ton of trash from the seven beaches with the highest concentration of beachgoers and reputations for post-Fourth of July trash.

Who are those volunteers?

They’re all sorts of people of all ages, including families:

And they’re willing to spend their time and energy cleaning up after others, changing our beaches from dumping grounds back into attractions.

What were those volunteers finding?

Much of the litter is single-use plastic – bags, drink cups, straws, utensils, plates, containers – mixed with food packaging, abandoned toys and clothing, flyaway balloons, fireworks, grills, chairs, broken boogie boards, shoes, sunglasses, backpacks, metal scissors, action figure parts, and food waste, food waste and more food waste, like this:

And – to my surprise – this:

This surprised me since smoking isn’t allowed on most San Diego beaches.  Yet according to this headline:

Cigarette butts are the number one thing the Surfrider volunteers find every year.

And lifeguards and law enforcement – understandably – are too busy to enforce the no-smoking law.

So some beachgoers abandon their trash, despite exhortations from the environmentally concerned, from the media and others to “pack out what you pack in” – in other words, bring garbage bags, pack up your trash and take it home.

Take some responsibility, for $@!%#$@* sake!

So, who’s leaving their trash behind…

And why?

It turns out that wiser heads than mine (of which there is a countless number) have been studying people who litter for many years.  And since I was curious about the who and the why, I did some online reading of articles like this:

From this and other articles I learned that while lots of people wouldn’t dream of going to a beach and leaving their trash lying on the sand – including me – at the same time, lots of people – including me – have gone to a movie theater and done this:

Me, a litterer?

Litter is litter, whatever its location.

The theory here is that “the decision to litter is based on the actions of other people – for both good and bad.  If an area is already highly littered, people are more likely to add more litter, while the cleaner an area already is, the less likely people are to disrupt the scene by littering.”

We go to the movies and know other people are going to leave behind their drink cups and popcorn containers and candy wrappers, so we do it, too.

Another theory has to do to with the location of trash cans:

“…the distance to a trash receptacle is a strong predictor of littering, so the farther away you are from a trash can or a recycling container, the more likely you are to litter.”

Now, San Diego beaches have many trash cans:

Plus, early on the morning of July 4, the Clean Beach Coalition puts many of these trash and recycling boxes in place:

So proximity shouldn’t be a problem.

But as the day goes on, if those containers look like this:

Some people decide it’s easier to leave their trash where it lays; the trash containers are all full, so why bother?

Another theory:

“People are more likely to litter when they feel no sense of ownership for parks, walkways, beaches, and other public spaces.” 

“It’s not my beach so it’s not my problem” – right?

Conversely, another theory is that “some people leave litter in the outdoors as a way of marking territory or claiming ownership – a kind of ‘litter as graffiti’ behavior.”

Then there’s the theory that some people feel a sense of entitlement:  “Someone will clean up after me.”

And who knows?  Maybe that goes all the way back to our earliest experiences of loading up our diapers, and someone else taking care of our mess.

So there are lots of theories, but here’s a fact:

Litter wasn’t always the gargantuan problem it is today.  Once upon a time, if you tossed an apple core out the car window…

Animals would eat it, or it would decompose, and no harm done.

But then came this:

And that was a relatively recent development:

“Production of plastics leaped during World War II, nearly quadrupling from 213 million pounds in 1939 to 818 million pounds in 1945.

“Come V-J Day, however, all that production potential had to go somewhere, and plastics exploded into consumer markets.” 

“Thanks to plastics, newly flush Americans had a never-ending smorgasbord of affordable goods to choose from.  The flow of new products and applications was so constant it was soon the norm.  Tupperware had surely always existed, alongside Formica counters, Naugahyde chairs, red acrylic taillights, Saran wrap, vinyl siding, squeeze bottles, push buttons, Barbie dolls, Lycra bras, Wiffle balls, sneakers, sippy cups, and countless more things.”

And consumers considered plastic disposable – it went out with the trash, along with that apple core and squeeze bottles and Wiffle balls and, and, and…

It took years to understand that…

“‘Unlike other materials, plastic doesn’t break down,’ said Alex Ferron, manager of the Surfrider San Diego chapter.  ‘Unlike paper and aluminum, where it’s breaking down and becoming inert, plastic breaks up.  So while you might not be able to see it, after some time it gets smaller and smaller, and all throughout the cycle of doing that, it’s getting eaten.  So it’s finding its way into our food chain, into fertilizers, it’s getting absorbed as rainwater.  It’s truly everywhere.’”

Even cigarette butts, said Ferron, contain “acetate plastic fiber.”

Of course we all know all of this.

And we do this anyway:

Still, there was a note of hope after the July 5 Surfrider’s Morning After Mess Cleanup:

Many of our volunteers remarked that the beaches seemed cleaner than in previous years, which is a great sign,’ said Ferron.”

Then she added, correctly:

“‘Despite that, we cannot lose sight of the fact that even one piece of trash on the beach is one piece too many.’”

Perhaps we’ll reach never reach that point of not “even one piece” of trash on our beaches.  And your beaches.  And our/your parks and sidewalks and streets and highways.

But perhaps someday – and soon, I hope – there won’t be enough trash left on San Diego beaches for Surfrider volunteers to make another one of these:

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