Coastal Cleanup Day and Pollutant Watch List

county of san diego watershed protection program


Beach Cleanup

Coastal Cleanup Day and Pollutant Watch List

Ocean pollution is a serious problem affecting not only our recreational enjoyment, but aquatic and human health as well. Come join I Love A Clean San Diego (ILACSD) and hundreds of other ocean-loving volunteers worldwide in protecting our ocean and its beautiful coastline by participating in the 38th Annual Coastal Cleanup Day which is part of the annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Since the worldwide cleanup effort began 35 years ago over 344 million pounds of trash has been collected, enough plastic grocery bags to cover 1,190 Olympic-sized pools. That’s a lot of trash! But, small efforts on our part and in our own communities can have a big impact in protecting our waterways.

Local Impact of Water Pollution

Closer to home, since 1985 over 269,000 volunteers have collected over five million pounds of litter and debris! In 2020 alone, over 20,000 pounds of debris were collected, of which nearly 3,000 pounds were recyclable items. While coastal cleanup day focuses on our shores, these pollutants are no strangers to our local neighborhood parks, streets, and parking lots. The storm drain system in San Diego does not treat pollutants – anything that flows into a storm drain will eventually reach the ocean untreated. About 80% of all marine debris begins inland and flows downstream to the coast, so cleaning up neighborhood trash can ultimately play a role in preventing coastal debris.

Water Pollution Watch List

Water pollutants come in many forms - from abandoned appliances, to fertilizer, to pet waste, to kids’ toys, and more. Some of the most common pollutants found on our beaches and communities are cigarette butts, plastics (in all their forms), and newly emerging personal protective equipment (PPE). These are all within our control to prevent, making it even more critical to watch for these in our everyday cleanup efforts.

  • Cigarette butts are the #1 most littered pollutant in the world, reported as the top pollutant worldwide for over 30 years, and in our local beach cleanups as well. In addition to being toxic, leaching arsenic and lead into our soils and waterways, they are also a common source of plastic pollution since their filters are made up of plastic. They are often found in the stomachs of animals who mistake them for food. A groundbreaking study conducted by San Diego State University on the effects of discarded cigarettes on marine life showed that one cigarette soaked in the water for 96 hours leached enough toxins to kill half of the fresh or saltwater fish exposed to it. Read this local news story for more information on the environmental hazard cigarette butts are creating on our own local beaches.
  • Plastics dominate our beaches and communities. Over the past 35 years of cleanups, one trend has stood out above all others: the steady rise of plastics. In most years since 2017, the most littered items have all been plastic (including cigarette filters), bottles and caps, food wrappers, microplastics, grocery bags, straws, and takeout containers. These plastics end up creating microplastics (from microbeads to plastic fragments to microfibers) that contaminate water sources and injure wildlife.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has emerged as a new type of pollutant. Keep America Beautiful’s 2020 National Litter Study estimated that approximately 207 million pieces of PPE gloves and masks could be found across America’s roads and along our waterways. PPE shares similar characteristics as other forms of plastic pollution, breaking down further into microplastics, persisting in the environment for years to come, and posing a threat to wildlife through ingestion or entanglement (primarily elastic face mask cords). The EPA offers these tips for proper disposal – safely dispose of used masks and gloves in your trash; before you dispose of masks, cut the elastic straps to prevent animal entanglement; and don’t toss masks and gloves into overflowing trash bins where they can blow away. More information on PPE as an emerging pollutant can be found in the Ocean Conservancy’s report on The Rising Tide of Plastic PPE.

 Every Action Counts…It’s Up to Us!

We can do our part to protect San Diego’s coastline and local waterways by:

  • Joining local cleanups such as Annual Coastal Cleanup Day and other cleanup events throughout the year.
  • Preventing litter from making it to our waterways in the first place by cutting out single-use plastic items when possible, properly disposing of cigarette butts and other forms of litter, and staying informed on local recycling rules and programs.
  • Preventing water from running off your property. Runoff can carry a variety of pollutants to our waterways.
  • Learning more about aquatic trash through EPA’s Trash Free Waters webpage and What You Can Do About Trash Pollution.
Coastal Cleanup Day


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Watershed Protection Website




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New Project Clean Water

Project Clean Water efforts are focused on providing a centralized point of access to water quality information and resources for San Diego County Watersheds. Click HERE to visit Project Clean Water’s website. 

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