On a chilly Saturday morning, volunteers got ready to take on the patches of litter at the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline in Oakland. The water lapped softly against the muddy shore where cigarette butts and pieces of trash were strewn about. Hundreds of people from all walks of life gathered near the shore, frosted plastic bags in hand, ready to rid the shore of the trash that had washed up onto the banks.
These volunteers were taking part in the 30th Annual Creek to Bay Day, during which volunteers from all over California, the United States and the world go out to clean their shorelines. Saturday’s shoreline cleanup was just one of over 30 cleanups at 15 different locations in Oakland. Others were held at Lake Merritt, Temescal Creek and even the Oakland Zoo.
At the shoreline, the assembled volunteers walked along the winding Damon Marsh trail over a bridge to the East Creek Slough. There, they fanned out and began digging through the trash on the shore. There were shouts as people let supervisors know they found sharps—syringes and hypodermic needles—or said “Look at this!” while pulling half a diaper from the mud.
Every year on Creek to Bay Day, large amounts of trash are collected from creeks, coastlines and watershed areas all over California. According to a press release sent out by the group, in 2013, 58,158 volunteers picked up 749,323 pounds of trash and recyclable materials on Creek to Bay Day. Eben Schwartz, marine debris program director for the California Costal Commission, said that in 2012, 65,000 volunteers cleaned up a little under 770,000 pounds of trash. He also said that, in 2011, 72,000 volunteers picked up 1.35 million pounds from the shores and creeks of California.
According to Schwartz, the event began in 1984 when a woman in Oregon got frustrated with the amount of trash she was seeing in her hometown. She got some friends together and decided to clean it up. California had its first cleanup in 1985, and Schwartz said that the turnout was so large that organizers decided to make it an annual event.
“One of the big difficulties is that there is no single agency that has a mandate to deal with trash in the oceans,” Schwartz said. He said that if trash washes up on land, it’s up to the local parks department to take responsibility for cleaning it up. In order to keep trash from running to the ocean from storm drains, prevention efforts are the responsibility of the State Water Resources Control Board.
Employees at the Port of Oakland also deal with making sure stormwater doesn’t get polluted. Jeff Johns, the site manager for the Port of Oakland Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline Cleanup Group, deals with trash as well. He’s been a site manager for the past 14 years, and the Port of Oakland itself has been involved with Creek to Bay Day for 22 years. Johns also runs the cleanup on Earth Day in April. Creek to Bay Day is important to him. “It’s a chance to go out with a bunch of people and make a visible difference in one morning,” Johns said.
The volunteer count for Creek to Bay Day tends to fluctuate, he said. “The year Obama was elected,” Johns said, “there were so many people here, we couldn’t deal with them. “ He was surprised at the high turnout this year, and said he lost count after the first 120 volunteers arrived at the cleanup on Saturday.
Though the number of volunteers may change, Johns said that the amount of trash that’s present every year tends to stay the same. “It’s sad, actually. You’d like to think there’d be less of it,” he said. He usually sees a lot of plastic shopping bags, Styrofoam items, and potato chip bags. “Those things really float,” he said of the potato chip bags. Plastic bags place number two on the list of top ten items that have been picked up at these cleanup days, and Schwartz said that number one on the list is cigarette butts. Seven out of the top ten items on the list are forms of plastic that don’t biodegrade.
Johns has also seen his fair share of oddities while cleaning up at the lake. “I’ve seen bikini tops, without bottoms. A lot of animal skulls,” he said. “Last year, we got a functioning emergency radio.” At the end of the cleanup day, he always gives a prize for the strangest object found.
Schwartz also heard about a very odd and touching story from a past Creek to Bay Day. In Monterey County, volunteers found an old book from the 1950s. Tucked inside of the book were two tickets for the inauguration party for Warren G. Harding. High school students reunited the book with its rightful owner, after she read about their discovery in a newspaper at her retirement home.
In the constant effort to rid the beaches of trash, Schwartz said that cleaning up is the least effective way to deal with trash. The trick, Schwartz said, “is to reduce the amount of trash produced in the first place, and then to prevent the trash from getting out there in the second place.” Schwartz said that it’s not just government’s responsibility or just the consumer’s responsibility, it’s also up to “the people who produce this stuff in the first place.”
At the end of the cleanup Saturday, Johns gave away some door prizes to volunteers as they relaxed and ate lunch: Creek to Bay Day T-shirts, a teddy bear and postcards. Then came the big prize, a dragon kite, awarded to the person who found the oddest thing. The winner this year was 9-year-old Carter Schlanker, who found an unidentifiable, barnacle-covered “object” that he was going to leave on the beach, and a condiment packet that read: “I knew you’d come back for me.”