Last week, Zero Waste Chicago hosted a beach clean-up at the pretty spot pictured above, 31st Street Beach here in Chicago. We brought gloves, trash bags, pencils and paper, a hanging scale for measuring our impact, and asked volunteers who showed up to just bring themselves. More than 20 people came, eagerly grabbed gloves and bags and headed out to get started.
In two hours, we gathered about 35 pounds of trash. Most of it was tiny: 700 cigarette butts, 300 food wrappers, 75 or so straws, 200 miscellaneous pieces of plastic, a few hundred plastic and metal bottle caps. It was a fun way to spend time outdoors, chatting with friends as we gathered small bits and pieces from the sand and the grass.
And, it was a good reminder too of why zero waste matters: it's literally easier to reduce one's trash output down to very little than to clean up even one small stretch of beach. I'm sure we didn't even get half of the trash that was there, and in a few weeks it will be right back to how it was. Better to try to avoid food that comes in wrappers when we can, to say no to straws, to be vigilant about avoiding things that are neither recyclable or compostable.
In case you're interested in hosting or attending a beach clean-up in your area, a few thoughts to get you started, below.
Hosting a beach clean-up:
You can partner with a local organization that collects data on collected trash, or you can go out on your own. We used the materials from the Alliance for the Great Lakes Adopt-a-Beach program. They provided data collection sheets that we filled out and sent back to them, as well as providing some guidelines for how we could successfully host the event.
If you don't live in the Great Lakes region, there might be another organization you can partner with who would love to use any data you collect and will help you figure out how to go about it. Or, you can simply set a date and location and gather friends for an informal clean-up. Certainly you'll be able to collect much more trash if you don't have to stop to record every cigarette butt you pick up.
If you're hosting, bring gloves for all or ask folks to bring their own. We used washable cloth gardening gloves to prevent making more trash from disposable latex or plastic gloves. We also brought garbage bags and sent each small group of two to four people off with two bags: one for trash and one for recycling. We also kept a bag set aside for compostable materials, too, like wooden barbecue skewers. Take it from us: bring more garbage bags than you think you'll need, as we had to ask a nearby food stand to kindly lend us some.
Attending a beach clean-up:
To find an event near you, do an Internet search, or ask a local environmental organization if there are any groups who offer them in your area. If you're near the Great Lakes area in the United States or Canada, the Alliance for the Great Lakes keeps a map of local events. A few other beach clean-up hosting regulars worldwide: United by Blue on the East Coast of the United States, or the Clean Coast Collective in Australia. If you know of a local organization you'd like to share with others, please comment below!
There of course, too, is immense value in picking up trash without a formal event, without data collection, on places other than beaches. It needn't be formal. You can do so on a walk with friends, your dog, while sitting at the beach slightly bored with your kids. My dad fills a small bag with trash each time he takes the dog for a walk at a nearby creek. All I recommend if you're going solo is using a pair of gardening gloves to keep your hands clean and taking care to avoid sharp objects.
Thank you to all who came to our event and showed so much enthusiasm for it. We're looking forward to hosting more of these next year!