Enough plastic lids to top 1,000 six-packs. Enough cigarette butts – and, mind you, just the butts – to stretch from home plate to the right field wall and back home again at Pac Bell Park. Enough plastic grocery bags to supply a Dom DeLuise shopping run.
These massive quantities of trash weren’t culled from somebody’s filthy mind, but instead from our local shoreline. The 16th annual East Bay Shoreline Cleanup is scheduled for the 16th of this month. And, as in the past, the event’s organizers will work late into the night, long after the volunteers have cleaned up and gone home, tabulating out the exact amounts of trash collected in an almost disturbingly methodical manner.
So we know, down to the last wrapper, butt or other filthy unmentionable, that last year 1,041 volunteers picked up 40.27 tons of garbage, including 15,665 pieces of foamed plastic, 10,309 plastic food bags and/or wrappers, 5,998 plastic lids and the aforementioned 6,138 cigarette butts – all in four hours.
“We’re very unusual in the way we do it,” says Patty Donald, a naturalist at the Shorebird Nature Center and coordinator of the local shoreline cleanup for the past 15 years.
“After the participants are done (with the clean-up), we go back to the nature center and calculate all the items picked up at the Berkeley Waterfront, Aquatic Park and have Albany and Emeryville (figures) faxed to us. I try to get the information to the City Council as soon as I get it. If they have information as to what kind of garbage is showing up in Berkeley, they can change laws.”
No bones, wrappers or little bit of hard plastic about it, what washes up on the shore can tell you a lot about the area’s inhabitants. Donald’s past collection data led to laws outlawing foam plastic food containers within Berkeley city limits. Interestingly enough, laws forbidding indoor smoking have led to vast increases in the numbers of cigarette butts littering the beaches. Instead of scrunching out cigarette butts in ashtrays, smokers are now tossing them into the gutters, where, almost without fail, they’ll flow through the sewers and end up on the shore (in addition to being where the land meets the sea, the beach is, unfortunately, where garbage from the land meets the garbage from the sea).
“It’s kind of crazy, when you drive by you don’t see it,” says past cleanup volunteer Eric Chow, a member of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity. “It’s surprising how much trash there is washed in from the shore and also from the land. It makes you think about littering. You’re going to think twice about doing it after you’ve done a project like this.”
Last year, Chow and most of the other volunteers from UC Berkeley fraternities, sororities, societies and clubs were stationed within the clean-up’s “ground zero” – the stretch of frontage road between University and Ashby avenues.
The heavily used – and abused – roadway is actually shut down to the public during clean-up hours (much to the wrath of speed demons hoping to elude bumper-to-bumper hellishness on Highway 80), while volunteers pick it clean and road crews fix the notoriously pockmarked concrete.
In addition to Frontage Road, clean-up volunteers also hit Strawberry Beach, near Frontage Road and University Avenue, where Strawberry Creek runs into the Bay, Caesar Chavez Park, Shorebird Park Beach and “The Brickyards,” so called because the coastal site was used as a dumping ground for brick foundations following the 1906 quake, located south of Strawberry Beach.
“For so many years, Cesar Chavez Park was the city dump,” says Donald (in fact, the road leading to the park is still known as “Old Dump Road”).
“People get in the mindset of going down to the shoreline to dump their garbage. We’ve picked up water heaters, air conditioners, sofa beds and, a couple of years ago, there was a rash of people dropping off broken and headless parking meters (ah, those were the days!). Yet finding odd debris can be more than just mind-boggling; you can also make a buck!
“They had a contest for who could bring in the weirdest thing they found and you’d get a prize for it,” says Chow. “One person found a message in a bottle, and it looked pretty old. Someone else found a Danish driver’s license.”
While several local companies have generously donated prizes to be raffled off among the volunteers, Donald says she is less concerned about attracting prize-hunters than people who want to lend a hand and learn a lesson.
“I don’t want people to come down for the free stuff, I want them here for the shoreline,” says the naturalist.
“I don’t want people picking up stuff for half an hour and saying ‘where’s my coupon?’ I want them feeling how people can be such pigs, but, wow! We can make a difference!”
For more information about participating in the East Bay Shoreline Cleanup on Sept. 16, call the Shorebird Nature Center at 644-8623 or check out the clean-up link on the City of Berkeley’s home page (www.ci.berkeley.ca.us).