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On a recent weekend I joined an early Sunday morning crew of committed ocean lovers on one of our regular post-holiday coastal cleanups.
Carrying bags, buckets, clipboards and gloves we trudged down the steep trail to the beach anticipating the disaster zone of plastic bottles, cups, bags, plates, cigarette butts, cans, bottles, food, exploded (and unexploded) fireworks and discarded miscellanea we typically find spread down the half-mile of sand at the edge of our town.
We quietly passed the hungover faces of the partiers who had spent the night in place asleep or passed out by their now-cold bonfires as they made their way up the same trail back to the parking lot.
One volunteer commented how strange it was to see each other on the trail, to bump shoulders wordlessly.
Beach lovers exiting after a night of trashing the beach as beach lovers entered to clean up their mess.
Something seemed very wrong about this scene. But it's a scene playing out all over the world, peaking on International Coastal Cleanup Day when more than half a million volunteers in one hundred countries hit the beaches and waterways to pick up other people's trash.
The disturbing fact that plastic pollution has invaded nearly all of our oceans, waterways, beaches and wildlife in unacceptable quantities is now well known and documented.
Efforts to reduce the amount of plastic trash reaching our waterways abound: bans, legislation, recycling, deposits and new kinds of packing provide solutions and hope.
I'll add one more tool to the toolbox: Say something about plastic pollution whenever you can.
Whether it's on the trail, the beach, the boardroom or in the classroom, speak up, speak clearly and speak effectively.
Working with kids on beach cleanups we role play and practice the most effective ways to say something. We discuss which approach might work best: getting up in someone's face with guilt and scorn or politely inviting them to help out while passing them a bag and gloves. We try out a few different styles on actual beachgoers.
"When I say: 'I love this beach and cleaning it up after people every weekend makes me sad, can you help?' it works so much better than getting mad or saying nothing," one kid commented.
I replied: "Yes. I've noticed that too. If we ask people to get involved kindly and directly they usually want to help get the job done. But we do have to invite them or they'll just watch!"
"And it's more fun...and faster," said the kid. A brilliant, simple insight.
My own kids have mentioned that getting the job done as quickly as possible is best and that they often despise the beach cleanups I take them to unless they can bring their friends.
Speaking up by inviting friends, colleagues and neighbors to volunteer for coastal cleanup events is a great way to educate. It's one thing to see a documentary about plastic pollution and another to spend the side by side, day hand in hand, eye to eye, filling bags with river or ocean-bound trash or filtering tens of thousands of microplastic pieces out of beach sand. After a real-life experience with plastic pollution in the wild behavioral change, such as refusing single-use plastics, comes more easily.
Picking up the phone, pen or keyboard and submitting a comment or letter of support for proactive plastic pollution legislation is another solid way to say something. Due to strong public support and brilliant organizing the California State Assembly just passed a bill restricting the sale of personal care products containing environmentally hazardous plastic microbeads, legislation that will keep billions of tiny plastic pieces out of our wild waters and serve as a model for national and international efforts.
There's plenty of work to do at all scales: from the beach or creek in your back yard and the grocery store shelves, to the materials labs at leading universities and the capitols and legislatures of the world.
Back on that July 5th morning I made my way down to the encampment at the base of the cliffs at the far end of the beach. Three big dome tents were packed with young men in sleeping bags who had had a late night of festivities--clearly not members of the super-chipper crack-of-dawn crew I was with. All around their campfires were strewn the remnants of a big night of consumption and celebratory explosions.
I approached the tents and announced "Good morning. There's a group of Boy Scouts about four minutes behind me carrying bags, buckets and shovels. They'll be marching in here to clean up your mess. I wanted to give you a heads up and suggest you put away anything you'd prefer they didn't see, put on some pants and lend a hand." About a quarter of the guys even moved at all, the rest oblivious and numb to the outside world. A handful of them got dressed and rolled out of their cocoons. A couple of them integrated into the scouts' cleanup crew.
Later on the trail, after a record-setting several truckloads of trash had been extricated from Davenport Beach, one of the tent guys approached me and through bloodshot, hung-over eyes asked how he could get more involved.
"That was pretty cool," he said.
I thanked him and suggested he re-hydrate then check out the Save Our Shores website for regular events and clean-ups on SLOWCOAST beaches.
It's important to speak up and to say something about the threats to our planet in a way that is heard and not ignored or quickly dismissed. It's also important to do it in a way that invites participation, action and conversation rather than guilt and divisiveness.
And then to say thank you, like you mean it.
Kindness and gratitude may be two of our best tools in the effort to fix what we have broken on this blue marble we call home.
Get involved: International Coastal Cleanup Day is September 19th
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