‘This Earth, it’s all we have’: California Coastal Cleanup brings thousands of volunteers to shorelines

Volunteers work to beautify dozens of Bay Area beaches, lakes, creeks and rivers

Gabriel Coleman, 11, and his friends Maarten and Merel dug through driftwood piled on the shoreline beneath the Dumbarton Bridge, searching for plastic and other debris to fill their white trash bags.

“With teamwork-makes-the-dream-work, we’ve been finding big and small pieces all over,” Gabriel boasted.

The Newark trio was among thousands of volunteers who turned out Saturday for the 39th annual California Coastal Cleanup, which took place at 695 beaches, lakes, creeks, and rivers across the state, including dozens of locations in every county in the Bay Area.

They, like many of the other younger volunteers at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont, took part in the event as part of their school’s community service requirements.

“Every year, we have to help the community,” Gabriel explained. “And it can be a lot of fun at times.”

More than 1.7 million volunteers have removed at least 27 million pounds of trash from California’s outdoors since the event began in 1985. However, attendance has decreased since the pandemic. Last year, only 38,467 people attended, which was roughly half of what it was before COVID. They collected 308,540 pounds of litter, or roughly one-third of the total prior to COVID.

The debris, particularly plastic, not only looks unsightly on the state’s beaches and shorelines, but it can also kill wildlife such as birds and sea turtles that become entangled in it or eat it. Volunteers collect food wrappers, bottles, cans, cigarette butts, and other trash, noting the type and quantity of each item so that the Coastal Commission can track pollution trends.

Around 150 volunteers had arrived by midday on Saturday for the cleanup at Don Edwards, according to Hannah Schmidt, a local park ranger with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Don Edwards was created specifically to help protect endangered and threatened species,” Schmidt explained. “And so picking up those microplastics, picking up that trash, directly impacts their habitat within the salt marsh and helps promote the growth of their species.”

Sirisha Maram, a Fremont Cub Scout Pack 110 parent and scout leader, oversaw a half-dozen first- and second-grade scouts wearing bright orange safety vests cleaning up the wildlife refuge.

“They’re just going along, making new friends, and talking about what they discover,” Maram explained. “So it’s a great way for them to meet new people and form a community.”

Meanwhile, Catherine Dorman, a Newark resident, crouched low to the ground to fish for microplastics hidden beneath the gravelly shoreline. Dorman, 61, said she participated in this year’s cleanup to help protect local wildlife.

“The bay, this Earth, it’s all we have,” she explained.

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