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Preschool teacher seeks solutions to another, overlooked kind of beach litter: plastic toys

Jill Johnson was looking for seashells to photograph during one of her early-morning walks along Newport Beach’s strands last summer when she saw a red toy shovel poking out of the sand near A Street.

After walking past it for three days and seeing it inch closer to the sea with the tides, unclaimed, she felt like she shouldn’t step over it again. So the Costa Mesa mom and preschool teacher carried the plastic shovel away, then quickly spotted and grabbed another, and another.

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“That day I came home with 25 shovels,” she said.

When left behind, beach toys like the red shovel become debris as much as the plastic water bottles or straws that ecologically minded consumers are starting to reject, Johnson said.

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She wants to start a movement to get the toys cleaned up too.

“They contribute to the same plastic pollution problem as much as other single-use plastics do,” she said.

Johnson said toys seem “sacred.” They’re pleasing to the eye, and they evoke innocence and fun. They aren’t viewed as trash.

And she understands that it’s easy to leave something behind after a full day, especially by visitors who need to pack up a car or suitcases for the trip home.

But left where they fall, these toys break apart, get tangled in seaweed and wash out with the waves. Discarded and forgotten beach toys, usually inexpensive and often sold in large sets at drugstores or nearby souvenir shops, dot the sand after long days in the high season.

So at daybreak, when spindly gull tracks in the firm, wet sand still outnumbered human footprints, she swept the beach of the previous day’s castoffs before the crowds returned. Walking for about two hours at a time, three days a week, over sections of beach between 71st Street and Balboa Pier, Johnson picked up hundreds of smiling turtles, sand-encrusted sifters, buckets and castle molds.

Last year she cleaned up 1,000 usable toys and donated them to local preschools. This year she set aside her take to get a better idea of the sheer volume so she can pitch solutions.

Johnson arranged her haul into a chunky, candy-colored mandala more than 10 feet in diameter Tuesday by Newport Pier, putting just one person’s effort into vivid relief.

Johnson suggests educational campaigns to remind people to take their toys with them or to not bring toys at all — the beach provides abundant shells and other natural curiosities for the imaginative child. She said she hopes the city will help her with her quest, perhaps with reminder signs.

Johnson said it’s better to ask children what problems they want to solve rather than what they want to be when they grow up.

“I kind of feel like I’ve found my problem I’d like to solve, even though I’m not a kid anymore,” she said.

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