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What I Learned From My First Beach Cleanup With Ocean Blue Project

What I Learned From My First Beach Cleanup With Ocean Blue Project


Two hours west of a perfectly sunny summer’s day in Clackamas, Oregon a foggy breeze awaited me on the Lincoln City coast. Today is a long-awaited beach cleanup. After a year of volunteering remotely with Ocean Blue Project, I have traveled from my home in Los Angeles, California with my younger sister, Kensley, for our first beach cleanup with Ocean Blue Project.


I didn’t expect to take away more than just trash from the beach cleanup.
At first glance, the beach appears clean. Some might think cleaning up the beach means just collecting beer bottles, food wrappers, and other forgotten items. However, beach cleanups require much more attention than a quick look over.

Within just a couple of hours, 71 of us volunteers managed to pick up 171 pounds of debris.

Beached logs and brush act as a barrier to catch debris blowing in from the coast and the inland. Much of what I found was in this area.

Treasures discovered along the coast included the typical cigarette butts and plastic wrappers but also some unexpected items such as a wrench, a screw, and a canvas painting.
While only a bit of garbage is visible, a closer look at the sand reveals microplastics.
The villainous microplastics—miscellaneous debris that’s the hardest to see and the hardest to get rid of. Microplastics are the least exciting of the gems we found that day—but also the main reason for our presence.

Microplastics affect marine life, raise sand temperatures, and harm food sources for locals. According to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fishing Commission’s website, climate change is threatening salmon from returning to the waters of the Pacific Northwest region where the Native Peoples of the Columbia River Basin tribes see the salmon not just as a food source but as an important cultural and spiritual identity.

After picking it all up, I expected the cleanup to be over, but no, there was more work to be done— sorting.
Sorting: Explained
Sorting entails organizing the collected finds into buckets or bags by category. These categories determine where the debris will hitch a ride to. That ride might be a recycling center, a donation box, upcycling plant, or to the landfill.

Sorting is an essential process to weed out the waste that cannot be recycled and assure that those who can be recycled or reused go to the right destination.


This is what sorting looks like…

Debris is dumped onto a burlap bag to get a better look. Gloved hands pick through the sand and sometimes seaweed. Some bags are easy to sort and some are trickier. Several buckets await nearby to collect a different category of material. 

These are the different categories we sorted out that day: 

  • Cigarette butts 
  • Aluminum products
  • Cardboard
  • Trash 
  • Microplastics 
  • Plastics
  • Glass
  • Clothes
  • Donateable objects

As more and more collection bags are sorted, a greater number of buckets take on a roll. It’s always exciting to see what will be in each bag. 

Clothes, toys, and tools found on the beach will be cleaned up to be donated to a second home. Aluminum cans and materials, which can be infinitely recycled, will become new products such as license plates, bicycles, phones, and airplane parts. Cigarette butts have the chance to live a second life as park benches, something I did not know before this specific cleanup. The unrecyclable microplastics, food wrappers, and broken plastic finds are upcycled.


Sorting: A Lasting Lesson

Volunteers that skip out on this step of the cleanup miss a crucial learning opportunity to gain insight on which products can be recycled, donated, or upcycled. Since the beach cleanup, I’m more conscious of one’s impact on the environment and what can be done in my everyday life to create a positive change.

You’re doing yourself a disservice if you do not sort debris at a beach cleanup.

I noticed that most people weren’t interested in sorting through their finds. In fact, a couple of other folks and I were the only ones sorting through the debris. 

Volunteering isn’t all glitz and glam. 

Sorting is not the glamorous part of the cleanup but don’t be afraid to get down and dirty.

Beach cleanups connect us to nature and provide an escape from the world for a little bit. However, beach cleanups also provide a learning opportunity outside of the participation part. 

When you sit over a pile of—let’s face it—garbage, you pick out one by one the pieces left behind by others. You see first hand the impact we’re having on our environment and account for what is left behind the most. Each cigarette butt and plastic bottle sets the tone for how we should be approaching our everyday lives, which is to stop pollution.

Reducing those waste products and using alternatives is one less piece of plastic in our oceans. 

Keeping Things Clean During the Cleanup

Beach cleanups are about, you guessed it, cleaning up the beach. 

Be careful not to add to the problem we are trying to subtract. Instead, be mindful of your impact as you set out for your beach day. 

A big mistake I have seen is when a group volunteers, they bring along water bottles and catered food served up in single-use plastics and unrecyclable materials. What might appear as a picture-perfect act of environmental goodness quickly rots. 

How to stay clean at your cleanup

Carpool to the beach with other volunteers and make sure to bring non-plastic reusable bags to collect debris and reusable bottles to drink from. Consider eating offsite beforehand to prevent bringing more waste to the beach.

Be Kind to Beachgoers

Be mindful that we aren’t the only ones on the beach on the day of the cleanup. Don’t knock over sandcastles or disturb any campsites as you make your way along the beach.

Don’t forget to enjoy the beach itself

This isn’t a Cinderella-scrubbing-the-palace floor cleanup. This is a beach cleanup! So enjoy the surf, sand, and sunshine (if you’re on a windy beach then embrace the breeze!).

Personally, the time spent by the ocean and away from my phone fills me with peace and calmness as I focus my attention only on the moment, looking for the little devils trying to pollute the ocean. With a pound or two less out of the ocean, I always feel a bit more optimistic about the world to come.

This boots-on-the-sand way of making a difference grants me a feeling of accomplishment and purpose. Rather than pondering the dire task of saving the planet or researching and writing ways to do so, I get to physically make a difference. And there’s nothing that can replace that instant gratification of making positive change for your community and your planet.

Lasting Impacts and New Habits

After the cleanup, my eyes are now expertly trained to spot loose trash and inorganic materials anywhere I step. Imagine what a huge difference we could all make collectively if we simply stopped and picked up that water bottle or wrapper off the ground instead of passing it by.

Beach cleanups occur beyond the day of the event and into our everyday lives and habits so let’s take the beach cleanup to our neighborhoods, sidewalks, and parks!

How to start a beach cleanup

Simply picking up debris when you visit the beach has a huge positive impact. You can also gather a group of friends and clean up a local beach as a collective effort. Or, you can host your very own cleanup through Ocean Blue Project!  

When you team up with Ocean Blue Project for a beach cleanup, you’ll get advice, tips, and materials for your cleanup. 

Spread the word and inspire others by sharing photos on social media. Who knows the impact you could make!

If you’re in the SOCAL area, you can join monthly cleanups with Cieara’s organization Environmental Queers.

Author Bio: Cieara West is an entertainment writer, a kickballer, and the co-founder of Environmental Queers in Los Angeles, California.