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In an ordinary year, Californians gather along the state’s beaches, parks, and waterways on the third Saturday of September to pick up trash before it can make its way into the Pacific. Every cigarette butt, bottle cap, and plastic bag in sight is collected and recorded, each a new point in a massive data set built over 35 years of coastal cleanups. Now, both the ecosystem and the data describing it are at risk.
Last year, more than 74,000 volunteers showed up to Coastal Cleanup Day, an event organized by the California Coastal Commission and its partners throughout the state. They picked up hundreds of thousands of kilograms of trash in a matter of hours.
In late May, however, as COVID-19 cases surged in California following the state’s first attempt to reopen, Eben Schwartz, the commission’s marine debris program manager, and his colleagues realized that any large gathering, even outdoors, would be too risky come September. Rather than cancel the event, the California Coastal Commission decided to transform it. They’re now encouraging Californians to go out into their own neighborhoods every Saturday in September. “We’re trying to salvage it as best we can,” says Schwartz.
He’s optimistic that volunteers will still go out on their own, but less sure about what that means for the cleanup’s itemized data set. Historically, that record has helped guide policymakers in creating targeted regulations—like the plastic bag bans imposed across the state over the past 13 years—and tracking their success.
“We can see the impact of our plastic bag bans,” Schwartz says. “We’ve seen the numbers dropping steadily in our cleanup data over the last 10 years.” But California is one of many states that lifted such bans this spring amid the confusion around the emerging virus and lobbying from the plastics industry suggesting—falsely—that plastic is less likely to transmit the virus than other materials.
This year’s data could be critical for assessing the consequences of that backslide, and for providing empirical support for anecdotal reports that masks, gloves, and other COVID-19-related trash are piling up in remote marine ecosystems.
Schwartz wonders if the pandemic will lead to an uptick in personal protective equipment or plastic bag pollution. “I really want that data, and it’s going to be hard to gather it in the same way that we’ve been doing.”
I Love A Clean San Diego, one of the commission’s partner organizations for Coastal Cleanup Day, has already experimented with hosting more localized neighborhood cleanups.
The nonprofit normally organizes two large cleanups every year—Creek to Bay in April, and Coastal Cleanup Day in September—which both attract between 5,000 and 6,000 volunteers locally. This year the organization pushed the Creek to Bay event back to mid-June, and discouraged volunteers from gathering in large groups during the cleanup. Only about half the usual number of people registered for the event this year, according to Ian Monahan, the philanthropy and marketing manager for the organization.
There were other key differences that might hurt the quality of the data. “Under normal circumstances, we physically weigh and sort the trash,” he says, “so we don’t necessarily rely on the individual to report.”
The issue is not unique to California cleanups. “All the data is going to have an asterisk next to it for this year,” Monahan says.
This year, the California Coastal Commission is encouraging volunteers to use the Clean Swell App to record itemized trash data—a platform developed by Ocean Conservancy, the nonprofit that has spearheaded the international coastal cleanup event for the last 34 years.
Ocean Conservancy has made key changes to the app, including adding gloves and masks to the debris list and incorporating a function that allows volunteers to record trash by total weight, rather than per item.
“While we’re apprehensive about the item data, we’re optimistic that people will feel empowered to go out there and pick this stuff up,” says Allison Schutes, the director of the International Coastal Cleanup. “There’s a pre-COVID and a post-COVID, and our approach is very different now.”
It may be difficult to fully quantify the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 on coastal plastic pollution. But I Love A Clean San Diego has already gleaned some insights from the data that came out of the Creek to Bay event. Cigarette butts and plastic pieces still topped the list, Monahan says, but there was a noticeable increase in disposable masks and plastic bags. “Those flimsy, tumbleweed plastic bags came roaring back,” he says.
Ultimately, a year or two of wonky data is less important than what we do with the mountain of data that already exists showing that single-use plastics are the major source of marine pollution, says Miriam Gordon, the policy director for Upstream, a nonprofit focused on eliminating the prevalence of disposable products.
“Until we change the reliance on single-use plastics, and revert to more durable, reusable products,” Gordon says, “we’re not going to see changes in the data set.”