The Big Beach Cleanup

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, learn about beach debris and how you can get involved to stem the tide of pollution in our oceans.
Heidi Walker Heidi Walker
Mountaineers Hike Leader
July 30, 2019

The breeze on my face contained the chill of an early spring day, sunny warmth trying to shaking off the last of winter. On this day, with the task at hand, the chill was welcome. I rested on a bleached log long stripped of bark, the waves filling my ears with swaying sound. A member of my Mountaineers group came into view along the water-line, his body bent as he dragged a line of buoys behind him. Smiling, I picked up my garbage sack and started looking for that piece of plastic I noticed earlier. Today was turning out to be a good day.

From Treasure to Trash

As a child, my summers were split between the sandy expanse of Washington’s southern beaches and the more rugged northern coast of Olympic National Park. I didn’t noticed the marine debris in those early years. Not that it wasn’t there — I was just preoccupied playing tag with the waves, turning over rocks to watch small crabs scurry for cover or poking sea anemones (don’t judge - my uncle showed me how).

During my teen years, I began to notice larger stuff like floats. Mom enjoyed beachcombing and would pack us up with a picnic to head to the beach where we would spend the day looking for treasures. Mom looked mostly for agates and sea glass. My sister looked for the perfect shells of creatures she would never eat. I focused my attention on brightly colored stuff: rocks, shells, floats, and pirate booty. Mom never let me bring home the Styrofoam floats, saying, “What do you think you’re going to do with it?” I thought it would be cool to hang up in my room, but mom’s taste and mine never did mesh well on decorating.

High school science class changed my perspective of beach “treasures.” I learned about the Great Pacific Gyre and the trash that accumulated there. I learned how trash in the ocean sometimes gathered there or sometimes was washed ashore. We were shown photos of sea creatures tangled in fishing nets or girdled by six-pack rings. I was horrified. I began picking up garbage where I could. I wasn’t alone.

Many Groups - One Goal

While backpacking along the wilderness coast of the Olympics in the late 80’s, the late Jan Klippert grew concerned with the large amounts of trash littering these remote beaches. He was distracted from the beautiful landscape by nets, buoys, ropes, and plastic – lots of plastic. He took it upon himself to clean the beaches of Olympic National Park. If he didn’t do it, who else would? It turns out a lot of people would. Those first few years, he convinced friends and family to join him on his excursions to pack out as much debris as they could carry.

Soon his friends invited friends, and Jan was coordinating what became known as the Olympic Coast Clean-up out of his living room using only his email, phone and a spreadsheet. Hundreds of volunteers would join Jan around Earth Day to help clean up our beaches, hauling off bags and backpacks filled with floats and plastic, but there was always more to do.

A group I don’t always associate with lending the environment a hand is the Pacific Northwest Four Wheel Drive Association, but they have been carting marine debris off Washington’s drivable beaches since the early 1970’s. They organize Operation Shore Patrol at the end of September to tidy up the beaches they enjoy playing on – a little civic duty to help keep their play areas free of hazards for themselves and others.

The Surfriders Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group for surfers and ocean lovers who protect the world’s oceans, waves, and beaches for everyone’s enjoyment, coordinates their members for smaller clean-ups up and down the Washington coast, picking up debris and catching a few waves all in the same day. They soon joined Jan and his growing band of volunteers for the Olympic Coast clean-up offering crews, support, barbecues, and trash hauling services. The barbecues soon became the highlight of every volunteer’s day where they could sit back, eat, drink, and compare who found the coolest, weirdest, or gnarliest junk.

Farther south on our coast, near the mouth of the Columbia River on the beaches where I spent so much of my childhood, another small group of concerned citizens formed the Grassroots Garbage Gang to help defend their home beaches, not only from the debris that floated in from the ocean but also the debris left by weekend revelers. Residents of the Long Beach peninsula were encouraged to take a trash bag with them on their morning walks on the beach. Soon businesses would adopt portions of the beach with employees working together during the year to pick up debris. The group also coordinated three larger group effort clean-ups a year on Earth Day, July 5th and New Year’s.

After years of mismatched coordination efforts, volunteers, nonprofits, civic organizations, and government agencies gathered together to form the Washington Clean Coast Alliance and its Washington CoastSavers program to coordinate one massive cleanup along the entire outer Washington coast on Earth Day. We credit Jan Klippert with the success Washington CoastSavers has today in gathering over 1,000 volunteers for just the Earth Day clean-up alone. Sadly, Jan passed away in 2008 but he was able to see his dream blossom into a movement of dedicated environmentalists who care about the health of our beaches. 

A Lending Hand

I became involved with the beach clean-ups when Jan was running the program with a clipboard and emails and asking for volunteers through The Mountaineers and REI. I read a request for volunteers in the Go Guide (the printed newsletter of Mountaineers activities, before the internet and online sign-ups were established) and decided to show up to the information session at REI. I signed up that night, volunteering to go to Cape Alava and camping on the beach for the weekend to pick up trash and cache it near the trail head. The next couple of years, I focused my attention to the beaches near Kalaloch, where my mom used to take my sister and me. Soon after, I convinced my sister and a few friends to join. Each year our group grew to included yet one more person swayed by our passion.

That’s really how it works - Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout troops, Girls & Boys clubs, church groups, school groups, co-workers, friends, family, Mountaineers gather all along our coast from Cape Disappointment to Cape Flattery and along the strait to Port Townsend to remove as much marine debris from our coastline as they can.

Can’t people just pick up after themselves?

Not all debris on the beach is from people carelessly leaving behind their trash. In fact, very little comes from traditional littering. Sure, you get the plastic water bottle left after a picnic or the plastic bag tossed around by the ocean breezes. But most of the debris is carried on ocean waves through currents and tides. Much discussion happened about when we’d see the debris coming from Japan after the 2011 tsunami. If Japan is on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from us, why would we expect to see debris from the tsunami? Even before the tsunami, we were finding cans from Japan, bottles from Russia and floats from Hawaii. Marine debris generally floats and is carried or pushed throughout the oceans by currents and winds.

What is Marine Debris you ask? NOAA’s Marine Debris Program defines it as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.” Basically it’s stuff in our waterways that shouldn’t be there that can cause harm to our marine habitats and the creatures that live there. Fishing tackle, bottles, lost floats, tires, cigarette butts, crab pots, nets, shoes, toys – the list of what constitutes marine debris is lengthy.

While a majority of marine debris washes ashore on the tide and during storms, enough is left behind by people who either toss their trash aside or lose it while enjoying their beaches to cause some concern. This trash can be picked up by the waves and carried out to sea, where it mixes with other marine debris and comes back to shore. Then the next high tide comes to take it back out. Back and forth until the plastic is degraded, the crab pots are rusted, or an animal eats it. Volunteers at the cleanups help to break that cycle.

The stories we get to share of what we find make after-event barbecues entertaining. For several years, volunteers were on the hunt for a pair of Nike shoes in their size. There had been reports of a container filled with Nike shoes that fell off a ship and shoes could be seen floating in the water. A random shoe would show up on beaches every now and then, but I only heard of one person finding a perfect pair, and not in Washington.

Tires are often found on the beach. Look up group photos from previous clean-ups, and almost all of them have a tire somewhere in the pile of debris they’re posing around. We’ve found refrigerator doors and abandoned movie theater seats among the chunks of Styrofoam and plastic bottles. There’s a hot tub near Cape Alava. A few years ago, a dock from Japan wedged itself on one of our wilderness beaches.

While the number of volunteers grows steadily every year the need to keep cleaning the beaches continues to grow. The debris never goes away. Every year we pull off more debris than we did the previous year. The stories of the fun stuff we find is entertaining, but when you think of the damage debris can do, it becomes frightful. 

Marine mammals can get caught up in drifting nets and ropes. Unable to surface for air, they drown. Fishing line that get wrapped around any creature can cut into skin causing injury or worse, death. Fishing gear can also be a hazard to marine navigation getting caught in propellers. Can you imagine coming across that dock mid ocean? You can’t always see debris on the ocean. The tsunami debris didn’t head across the ocean in one mass of stuff. It spread out, some got waterlogged and sank. What was left floating was often obscured by waves.

Plastic and Styrofoam are the horrors. As they break down birds and fish think they are food. They ingest but are unable to digest or pass the plastic through their system. Soon they are engorged but starving. Too many times I have seen images of a bird’s carcass with plastic bits inside it. If you asked, that would be a big reason I return year after year – to try and stop another creature from dying from our waste. Plastic is ubiquitous in our lives. Looking around my desk as I type this, I see a couple of plastic bags, a foam roller, a plastic exercise ball, and other plastic containers. Even as I try to get rid of plastic in my life, there are times I can’t avoid it. So I might as well clean up after myself.

In 2016, 1,700 CoastSavers volunteers pulled 26 tons of debris off the Washington beaches between the two events, Earth Day and the International Coastal Clean-up. It’s something to be proud of. The Mountaineers are large part of the success over the years. I met Mountaineers on my first trip to Cape Alava way back when, and more Mountaineers at the Kalaloch beaches. The CoastSavers have found that they can rely on The Mountaineers to hike out and back to the remote beaches often several times in one day. We organize backpacking trips to coincide with the clean-up and add a bag of debris or two to our packs on our way out — and that’s something to be proud of too.

A Day on the Beach

A group of us woke up early on Saturday, ate a hot breakfast, packed our lunches, and joined our carpools for the ride out to the trail head of Shi Shi Beach, after spending the night at Naturebridge – the environmental learning center on Lake Crescent. We broke up into smaller groups and trekked through the coastal forest to a beach wild and familiar. Our destination: Point of Arches at the other end of the beach where we ate lunch before pulling out our bags to start collecting debris. Some of us shoved as much as we could carry into large backpacks. Others resorted to dragging stuff behind them. We fashioned yokes out of trekking poles or driftwood. We climbed over driftwood, scouring the nooks and crannies for trash, for that is where debris likes to hide. By early afternoon, we were to capacity and headed back to the trail, passing debris we weren’t able carry off this time; a couple of floats here, a plastic bin there, and the ever-present plastic bottles.

Other volunteers greeted us and waved. We compared loads and remarked on the types of debris we found. Every year, other visitors to the beach who had no idea the clean-up was going on asked for an extra bag so they too can join the effort. When we finally made it back to the cars, we piled our “haul” near the dumpster and posed, proud of the work we had done.

Back at NatureBridge, we shower and relax, sharing stories and laughter before the dinner bell is rung. The cook staff at the center fill us up with carbs and veggies before we ask for the fire ring to be lit for the evening.

It’s a story that’s repeated over the years and in many groups. It’s become a friends and family tradition with many beginnings and one purpose — to care for our marine life and environment.

How to Get Involved

We would love for you to join us on a future clean-up. Sign up or organize your own group through The Mountaineers to clean your favorite beach, or sign up for a clean-up at coastsavers.org. Learn more about marine on NOAA’s Marine Debris Program website at marinedebris.noaa.gov.


This article originally appeared in our Summer 2017 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.


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Katy McCormick
Katy McCormick says:
Wed, Jul 31, 2019 9:38 AM

Heidi thanks for this well-written and meaningful story. Ian and I were at the Shi Shi beach cleanup - he did indeed pick up a tire - and it was eye-opening how much plastic debris littered the beach. We were grateful to have the chance to help a little bit but realize we have to keep at it, everywhere we go to pick up plastic and keep it out of the waterways.