File photo

Despite safer-at-home orders, Westside beaches have remained packed with residents and tourists alike which has raised concerns of plastic pollution in local waterways.

Graham Hamilton, Coordinator for the Los Angeles Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, said in an interview Thursday that pollution reduction initiatives and beach access programs make up the bulk of the work being done throughout Southern California.

Hamilton said his chapter operates from Marina Del Rey to the Ventura County line.

“Pre-COVID we were doing anywhere between two to four beach cleanups per month,” he said. “And it was always funny because when we were in Santa Monica, Venice or Malibu, participants would come to the beach — and invariably — you would hear someone chime in about how the beach looks pretty clean.”

They’d jokingly ask if there was any trash out there to pick up, but Hamilton said that sure enough, they’d put a glove and bag and a trash picker in their hands and about an hour later they come back with a couple pounds of trash.

He said most of the items were weightless single-use plastics. So while beaches may be cleaner in one area as opposed to another, it’s all kind of a matter of perspective because local waters need attention constantly.

Admitting there’s no hard data to show if beaches were cleaner during the shutdown than they typically are, Hamilton said, “Just because people aren’t at the beach though, doesn’t mean that their trash and pollutants aren’t making their way to the beach.”

Los Angeles is a system of watersheds, so when the Westside had rain early in the pandemic — it brought all of that trash to the beach, Hamilton said.

“So a person in Pasadena isn’t necessarily at the beach, but that doesn’t mean that their trash isn’t,” he said. “And, of course, it’s sticking around a lot longer because there aren’t organizations like Surfrider and Heal The Bay and other partners going out and conducting our regular operations to clean those beaches.”

As somebody who’s lucky enough to live by just blocks from the beach in Santa Monica, Hamilton said, “I went down a couple of times during the lockdown and saw just as much trash as I’ve ever seen, especially in the parking lots and around trash cans because city services have been limited. I don’t think the tsunami of single-use PPE items helped because those are now also showing up on the beach.”

A lot of residents think that trash comes mostly from visitors who aren’t as careful, but there are different inputs that are flooding our creeks, streams and coastlines with trash, Hamilton added, detailing how COVID has created the disruption of a lifetime for many, many people in the world.

“But what’s important to remember is there’s an even bigger disruptor right on the heels of it and it’s climate change,” he said. “We are individuals but we are also part of a collective. And the reality is we can’t clean ourselves out of this mess. When you think about the fact that there are 10 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean every single year and the plastics industry is estimating to increase plastic production by 40% by the year 2030, you see we can’t vacuum our way out of this problem. So, it’s really up to individuals to see themselves as part of an interconnected system and understand that their everyday choices impact our watersheds, our mountains, our creeks, our communities, beaches and oceans.”

That’s a philosophical issue though, according to Hamilton.

“But from a practical standpoint, you can take an hour and do a clean-up yourself once a month. And you don’t have to go to the beach to do the cleanup — you can pick up trash in your alleyway or in your neighborhood,” he said.

This is only a small step, Hamilton added. “But we need to get out there and vote as well. And we need to remember that we are all a part of a system and we all depend upon each other.”