Cars driving along Portola Drive on Saturday honked and cheered at the dozen or so volunteers collecting plastic from the roadside.
The volunteers were participating in the 46th coastal cleanup, hosted by Clean Oceans International (COI), as well as One People One Reef and Surfrider, that kicked off Memorial Day weekend on May 27.
Based at the KSCO radio station for the day, community members took to the streets and coastline to scour for any piece of plastic—big or small—and dispose of it properly.
While the event didn’t have as large a turnout as previous years (at times well over 100), volunteers came together with the collective goal of making the ocean a cleaner place.
“I think it’s really important,” volunteer Gene Ratertae said. “People get the connection between trash on the street and nasty stuff in the water.”
The coastal cleanups initially began as a project for Cabrillo College oceanography students, but quickly became a perennial mission to apply their knowledge of ocean conservation.
After a year and a half hiatus during Covid, the coastal cleanups are now in a revamping stage. Radio stations KPIG and KSCO have highlighted the events and encouraged participation in the cleanups.
Even with these efforts, the cleanup turnout was smaller than expected.
The previous 45 cleanups have yielded an average of about 1,000 pounds of plastic removed from local beaches and roadsides. This time around, volunteers were able to remove over 40 pounds of plastic from the environment.
“I was a little bit disappointed with our low turnout today, but not that disappointed that it’s going to stop me from doing this again,” COI education director David Schwartz said.
Small But Mighty
COI is a small but growing non-profit based in Santa Cruz that aims to convert plastic waste into diesel fuel and provide plastic waste assessment of local beaches.
The organization uses Portable Plastic to Fuel technology to break down plastic waste through a vaporization process. This technology converts the waste at a rate of about one liter of diesel fuel additive for every kilogram of plastic with little to no harmful waste—and is achieved through a vaporization process called pyrolysis which encapsulates toxic chemicals rather than releasing them.
Until a diesel fuel converter is accessible in Santa Cruz County, the plastic collected over the last 46 cleanups was recycled as much as possible, while the rest was sent to landfills.
Some people, frustrated with the fees local landfills require, opted to dump their garbage in places like the San Lorenzo river tributary which flows directly to the Monterey Bay.
For the first time, the Santa Cruz Alliance for Ocean Conservation organized the coastal cleanup, which is a coalition of COI, One People One Reef and Surfrider—all of whom strive to protect Monterey Bay from plastic pollution.
“We decided maybe it could be to our collective benefit if we form an alliance where we could share outreach and education,” said Shwartz. “We all have our own niche.”
Twice a year since the early 1990s, the coastal cleanups have removed a grand total of around forty thousand pounds of plastic in Santa Cruz from Sunny Cove to Pleasure Point.
For every piece of plastic removed, two were ready to take its place.
Just like incentivising recyclables has drastically reduced the amount of bottles and cans aimlessly strewn throughout the community, converting plastic into diesel fuel could have a similar effect on the world’s oceans. While only 9 percent of current plastic waste is recycled, researchers are working to commercialize the process and reduce global plastic waste.
For now, plastic pollution remains a massive problem for the environment—and a sore sight for eyes.
“The more that you start looking, the more you see,” volunteer and Cabrillo oceanography teacher Lauren Hanneman said. “It’s not the big pieces but the little ones, the ones you don’t pay attention to.”
The Santa Cruz Alliance for Ocean Conservation plans to host the next coastal cleanup in late October, with more details to come on the COI webpage.