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Record number of beachgoers hitting the coast — and leaving trash behind

Officials want to send the message to “pack in, pack out” to beachgoers along the coastline who have shown up in increasing numbers recently and are leaving piles of litter behind on the sand.

Los Angeles County beaches have had a surge of visitors in recent months, following six weeks of access to the coast from the South Bay through Santa Monica and up to Malibu shut off because of coronavirus concerns. Long Beach and Orange County coasts have also seen closures.

“You can be out in the fresh air, we have some beautiful beaches and coastline, and it really is something that is attractive to people at the moment,” said Gary Jones, director of Los Angeles County’s Department of Beaches and Harbors. “It’s an opportunity to escape from what is going on around us and some of these stresses and strains we are all under.”

But the some 8 million people who showed up following the shutdown, up from the usual 5 million, have also put a strain on clean-up crews grappling with the influx.

“It’s an incredible increase,” Jones said of the 3 million more beachgoers tallied from mid-May when beaches opened back up through June – a 60% increase over the same period in 2019.  “That’s a lot of additional load on our facility and crews.

“The trash is another component of that, you have perhaps people who haven’t been to the beach in years, or do not come to the beach, or are not as conscious of what items to bring, and taking trash and disposing of it in a responsible way,” he said.

During the six-week shutdown that spanned from late-March to mid-May along the Southern California coastline, beaches got a break from human impact.

Some trash still made its way down waterways and storm drains that lead to the sea, but the usual trash left behind was nonexistent for the most part.  In some areas such as Huntington State Beach, a threatened bird species flourished like never before during the absence of people.

When the closure was lifted, Jones said the Department of Beaches and Harbors prepared for the return of beachgoers mostly by making sure they had a new schedule for cleaning crews to sanitize most of the 52 restrooms six times a day.

“I have to admit, we did not anticipate the sheer numbers we are seeing, in addition to what we typically see,” he said. “It did take us by surprise.”

It’s a trend beach operators are seeing not just in Southern California, but across the nation, he said. “That’s a similar experience we’ve seen on a national level, this desire to get out to the coastline.”

Disneyland and other theme parks people usually visit this time of year are still shut down, leaving Southern California’s other in-demand amenity and top tourist attraction – the beach – as one of the the only options for people to enjoy. It is also outdoors and allows more for social distancing.

“There are limited opportunities for families to recreate, or go out as a family to those usual amenities and attractions,” Jones said. “The beaches provide a welcome return to normalcy and have always been valued as an opportunity to spend quality time with family and household members.

“And I think with that, we’re lucky to have our coastline and wide-open beaches and I think people feel somewhat safer in those areas,” he said. “Now that has in turn created challenges for us at the county public health level.”

Then, there’s the continued restrictions on restaurants, with no dining allowed indoors and many eateries focusing on to-go orders – food is being brought to the beach and the wrappers left behind.

It’s a scene not just in Los Angeles County, but at other popular beaches.

James Pribram, who for years has organized beach cleanups at Aliso Beach through his Eco Warrior Foundation, said the litter problem in Laguna Beach has been “absolutely appalling.” And beach cleanup events are on hold because of coronavirus concerns.

“There is so much trash, it’s literally heartbreaking, especially on a Monday morning because of the weekend,” Pribram said. “There’s just booze litter everywhere, McDonalds, Carl’s Jr.”

Except, he said, following the Fourth of July weekend, when most beaches across Southern California were closed.

“There was not even a piece of trash, it was spotless,” he said. “I feel like we should close our beaches every weekend.”

He said he thought the lockdown and pandemic would reset people’s ability to be more compassionate to others and the environment.

“But I’m seeing the complete opposite,” he said. “The lack of respect people have these days is appalling. Maybe it’s a lack of resources, maybe if people got tickets for littering or drinking on the beach, people might stop.”

Pribram said he passed by Coast Highway in South Laguna on Friday, July 10, and watched as a person strolled the street with a trash picker, plucking up litter that would otherwise end up at the beach. Pribram wonders if the city should add trash bins along the busy beach highway.

“The littering problem is so out of control. It’s so sad,” he said. “It really is one thing you can change and stop.”

Huntington Beach lifeguards have not yet tallied beach attendance to see if there’s an increase compared to last year, or whether there’s more trash than usual, but one type of trash is making a regular appearance on the sand. “I have noticed more discarded disposable face masks,” said Huntington Beach Marine Safety Lt. Claude Panis.

The debris isn’t just unsightly. Trash can end up in the ocean, where it can kill marine life. Overflowing trash bins attract seagulls, whose droppings can contain harmful bacteria and contaminate the water, officials said.

“I encourage beachgoers to pack in and pack out – take their trash home with them – for the rest of the summer to preserve public health and the health of our beaches and the ocean,” Jones said.

With the record number of beachgoers in recent weeks, the 2,600 trash barrels dotting the Los Angeles coastline have been overflowing.

Department of Beaches and Harbors crews are also increasingly seeing the aftermath of illegal fires on the sand, especially at Dockweiler State Beach, where fire pits were removed. People have been building illegal fires or using personal fire pits and grills, which are not allowed on the beach or in the parking lots.

The debris from the makeshift fires is not only toxic to marine life, but can also be buried from sight and still smoldering, posing a risk of burning unsuspecting passersby.

With this weekend expected to be a scorcher, and last week’s holiday closure, Jones expects another busy couple of days at the beach – and for his clean-up crews.

“We always enter the weekend with a bit of trepidation,” he said.

Jones said on the flip side, it has become apparent just how special the coast is during this time as more people come out to enjoy the beach.

“They provide a tremendous asset to us all, and perhaps certain times like this now are really showing the value of them,” Jones said. “And hopefully we will raise the importance of taking care of them and the value that people get from them.”

Source: Orange County Register

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