Volunteers from the Red Cross Van Nuys District help clean up the beaches of Santa Monica during the annual Heal the Bay supported Coastal Clean-Up on Saturday morning. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SANTA MONICA BEACH — As heavy clouds lay thick over the bluffs of Santa Monica and Malibu and a chilly breeze blew in off the gray peaks of the ocean waves, thousands of people swarmed Santa Monica beach Saturday, looking for the little pieces of modernity that should never have been left behind.

The group, almost 2,000-strong, represented a portion of the 14,000 volunteers across Los Angeles County organized by Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay as part of the California Coastal Cleanup, a statewide initiative to pick up the millions of pounds of trash that pollute the local waterways.

The event marked the 27th year of the California Coastal Cleanup, which, in connection with the International Coastal Cleanup organized by the Ocean Conservancy, is the largest volunteer event in the world, according to state officials.

It’s funded by the sale of Whale Tail license plates, a new design of which was released just recently.

According to preliminary results released by the Coastal Commission with 80 percent of the 800 sites reporting, tens of thousands of people removed 600,000 pounds of garbage from the coastlines, waterways and even inland areas of California.

At the five sites in Santa Monica, volunteers collected 1,200 pounds of trash.

The interior areas are just as important as the beaches, as 60 to 80 percent of garbage comes from as far as 60 miles away.

“We want to catch it before it gets to the beaches,” said Eveline Bravo, the beach programs manager with Heal the Bay, an organization that advocates for environmental policies and ocean-friendly legislation.

The small pieces of plastic and other materials that wash into the ocean through waterways and storm drains can kill wildlife, harm industries that rely on the ocean and even become a hazard to human health.

Last year, 14,131 volunteers in Los Angeles collected 137,422 pounds of trash. This year, 10,964 volunteers collected 44,038 pounds, according to Heal the Bay.

In order to not only remove trash, but prevent it, the Coastal Commission launched a special initiative this year to encourage volunteers to bring their own reusable bags and tools to pick up the cigarette butts and other items found in the sand.

Much of the money that comes to Los Angeles County from the sale of the Whale Tail license plates goes to buying the 80,000 disposable bags used, as well as gloves for volunteers, Bravo said. This year, that number was cut almost in half.

The rest of the money goes to permits, hauling costs and necessities like toilets.

“We need to practice what we preach, and if we’re asking folks to produce less trash on a daily basis, we want our event to be the same way,” Bravo said. “The little steps up until now and next year with more zero-waste messaging will lead us to a future where we do cleanups that generate no trash.”

Santa Monica officials have also embraced the no-bag philosophy.

A ban on plastic bags, passed in January, came into effect Sept. 1. A similar ban already exists in the unincorporated areas in Los Angeles, and a handful of other cities and counties across California, most recently Santa Cruz County.

Saturday was George Delagarza’s third year participating in the beach cleanup. He and a group of others including Pedro and Denise Trejo wore bright orange shirts bearing the AT&T corporate logo.

This cadre of the AT&T Pioneers, as they’re called, called out each piece of trash as they came across it, while two younger children marked down the kinds of items on worksheets. So far, cigarette butts and pieces of plastic topped the list.

They sacrifice three hours to the tedious process of picking up garbage because they love the beach, Pedro Trejo said.

“I’ve been coming here for years, since I came with my parents,” Denise Trejo said.

While the majority of volunteers combed through the sand to locate tiny remnants of plastic and other materials left behind by the motorized rakes that pick up the big items like cardboard boxes and plastic containers, others dove into the task.

Nathalie Demirdjian, outfitted in a wetsuit and air tank, prepared to search the seafloor around the Santa Monica Pier for garbage.

In years past, divers have found an entire wedding dress, a suitcase full of graham crackers and even little voodoo-esque coffins.

“I hope to be one of the people who find something other than plastic bags,” Demirdjian said.

Even State Assemblywoman Julia Brownley took on a more hands-on approach, cruising the coastline on a kayak to pick up wayward plastic bags that wind their way from up to 60 miles away.

Though the excitement of the coastal cleanup is over for this year, there’s still one last reveal — the winner of the “most unusual item.”

Divers found an intact wallet complete with $6 and credit cards belonging to an Encino woman near the Santa Monica Pier.

Next year’s cleanup is already in the works, and set for Sept. 15, 2012.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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