"This Garbage Counts" - Cleaning up Berkeley shorelines, every month

(photo by Dave Bullock)

By Rosie Gonce  

About a month ago, while doing some research on my computer about playgrounds, I came across something that caught my eye. It was about a monthly shoreline cleanup that was organized by the City of Berkeley Parks & Recreation and the Waterfront Recreation Department and it said that anyone could participate. I soon discovered that it happens on a recurring basis every third Saturday of the month from 9:30am to 11am, not far from where I live (in Oakland) at the shoreline of the Berkeley Marina. I immediately felt that this seemed like an easy, satisfying, hands-on way to really give back to the environment that we are so constantly destroying. So I emailed them to register. They ask people to register so they can get an idea of how many people are coming.

After asking my husband, Colin, if he would join me for the beach cleanup, I was pleased that he happily agreed and even went despite being under the weather that day. We got some instructions emailed to us about what we needed and what to expect. The instructions were simple; mostly with advice such as  wear layers, bring drinking water, and if you can, bring reusable buckets and gloves. We were to meet at the Nature Center, across from the Berkeley Marina to sign waivers and sit through a short presentation.

So when Saturday came, after a couple cups of coffee and a quick trip to Home Depot for supplies, we arrived at the Nature Center at 9:00AM sharp. We were the first volunteers there and were greeted by the two women organizing the cleanup. They were assessing the shoreline directly in front of the Nature Center and said that the recent rain had brought in so much trash that we could just do the cleanup right here. Other times the cleanup crew will go to a different part of the shoreline, where ever the needs are most apparent.

The sad reality of trash inside a bird. (photo by Chris Jordan/Smithsonian)

Being the overly prepared kind of people we are, Colin and I brought our own buckets and gloves although there were many gloves and buckets provided for all the volunteers who attended the cleanup. People trickled in and by the time the presentation started there were about 15 volunteers in attendance including myself and my husband. There were a couple other couples, a few high schoolers getting community service hours and one family with a young child, who had one of those trash-picking-up tools. A short presentation was given with photos of dead animals whose stomachs were filled with plastic, with some local history about how we live in an estuary, which is a unique eco-system where the tide (sea water) meets the stream (fresh water). The presenter spoke of how the problem of plastics in the water is getting worse, but how important these shoreline cleanups are, because not only do we clean up the beach and remove trash, but we also keep data of the garbage collected. This data directly effects how laws regarding the environment are made, such as the plastic bag ban, for example. She said they saw a huge drop in plastic bag garbage after that law became in effect. We got some safety instructions in case we found a dead animal (leave it) or a syringe (let them know and get the special bio-hazard tools to remove it from the beach). We signed a waiver and everyone got in to teams so that one person could collect trash and the other person could keep tally marks on the data card of the garbage collected. They provided each team with a data card and a tiny pencil.

Colin and I did a big sweep of the beach and went further down than anyone else, trying to get all the big pieces we could find, even though we knew we were venturing to where the trash wasn’t quite as bad. The other volunteers mostly stayed in one place, where the organizers pointed out that the garbage was most condensed, and collected because of the tides. Some volunteers were digging through the sand and seaweed, really focusing for a long time on one spot and finding all the tiny pieces of Styrofoam and plastic. But whichever way people chose to clean, each person helped and was a part of the collective mission.

We were lucky that it didn’t rain that day, although the cleanup would have still continued had it rained. Sea gulls sat on the rocks near us as we cleaned the beach. We debated whether a dark dot in the distance was a piece of wood or the head of a seal. One of the organizers explained the difference between seals and sea lions to us. It felt a little like a reminiscent of a high school field trip, but with more personal invested interest. The sun came out and we slowly started shedding our layers of clothing. The sea was glistening and the silhouette of the adjacent buildings glowed in the distance.

(photo by Rosie Gonce)

A yoga mat floated amongst the tiny waves. One of the organizers, who wore galoshes, used the young boy’s trash-retrieving tool to get it out of the water. People cheered when she got it out. Everyone was focused and working hard, but everyone was happy and the good vibes were nearly tangible.

For about an hour and a half, Colin and I took turns collecting the pieces of garbage and hollering out to the other what they found. “Styrofoam! Plastic candy wrapper! Plastic bottle! Bottle cap!” Then the person marking the data card would repeat back what was collected as they marked, “Styrofoam check! Plastic candy wrapper check!” We filled our bucket twice and added it to a large garbage bag the organizers had. They passed out separate bags for anything recyclable, like plastic bottles or cups. We ended up finding a syringe and had to use a tool that almost looked surgical to pick it up and put it in a container filled with other syringes.

When it was around 11 o’clock and people had already started leaving and turning in their data cards, Colin and I helped to combine all the garbage and leave it near the trashcans, where they were to be picked up by maintenance staff who was already informed of the cleanup. A couple high school girls had volunteered to add all the data cards together for the final count. Colin and I decided to stay to find out the final count too. Here it is, for 1.5 hours of cleaning and 17 people cleaning (15 volunteers and 2 organizers) an area approximately 500 feet of the shoreline, we collected: 2,107 TOTAL pieces of garbage...


9 bags (grocery, shopping, trash)

14 bags (ziplock, snack)

513 food wrappers (chips/candy)

17 bottles

252 bottle caps

87 straws/stirrers

3 fishing line/nets/lures

13 balloons/ribbons

692 pieces



1 food container

27 peanuts/packing material

205 pieces

Smoking related Items

31 cigarette butts

36 cigar tips

3 disposable lighters

7 boxes or wrappers



5 bottles

36 pieces

Paper Items

1 bag

4 containers

1 cardboard/newspaper/magazine

31 pieces



25 bottle caps

3 cans (beverage)

1 fishing hook



1 firework

1 syringe

2 condoms

1 appliance

52 shot gun shells

30 other

(photo by Rosie Gonce)

In a world where everyone is urging everyone else to make a difference, but you aren’t really sure how. Maybe you’re just trying to survive in a world of non-livable wages, where eating healthy is synonymous with eating expensively and the news is either questionable or depressing; here’s a morning that you can greet the beautiful flora and fauna of the bay, and not just apologize for being part of the human race that’s slowly destroying it, but you can physically remove some of it. In addition, parking is free, it’s minimal physical labor and the difference is something you can actually see, measure, count. Last Saturday we removed 2,107 pieces of garbage from the shoreline. I like to think that could be the difference between preventing a hundred dead birds. But who knows, maybe we just prevented a few fish from getting some tummy aches. Maybe we prevented a child from stepping on that needle and getting really sick. No matter what the result, it’s nothing but positive, and I’d say it was very much worth every groggy effort, and it will be worth every Friday night in the future that I’ll be saying “I can’t stay out too much longer, I gotta wake up early for that beach cleanup thing I do.”

So while some Saturdays I don’t wake up until after 11am or maybe by then I’ve had my second cup of coffee but still haven’t changed out of my PJs, I’ve made a commitment to dedicate one Saturday a month to personally prevent our birds and fish and creatures in the bay area from ingesting our garbage. Will you join us?

All you need to know:

·         Every 3rd Saturday of the month, 9:00AM-11:00AM

·         To register/RVSP, email: naturecenter@cityofberkeley.info

·         Meet at: Shorebird Park Nature Center, 160 University Ave, Berkeley CA 94710

·         For more information, head here.