On a day when tens of thousands of volunteers will descend on California’s beaches to cleanse the coastline of trash and garbage, it will be just another day in Sara Bayles’ self-assigned task of keeping the sands spotless in Santa Monica.
For months, Bayles has scoured her local beach in search of junk others have left behind. But her volunteer work goes far beyond just picking up litter.
The 33-year-old aspiring children’s novelist collects, weighs and photographs the plastic bottles, soda cans, cigarette butts and other debris she scoops up in her 20-minute beach cleanups and posts photos and reports on a blog called The Daily Ocean.
It’s a painstaking, slightly obsessive way of answering a simple question she posed to herself: How many pounds of trash could I collect from the beach if I did it for one year?
Frustrated that she could never attend organized community beach cleanups, such as Saturday’s Coastal Cleanup Day, Bayles decided a year and a half ago to trek the 25 blocks from her home to the beach at Ocean Park and do one herself.
“I was astonished by how much crap was on the beach the first time I went,” she said.
So Bayles vowed to spend 365 non-consecutive days, 20 minutes at a time, collecting trash from the same football field-sized area of beach near Santa Monica’s Lifeguard Tower 26. She would weigh the garbage at the end of each session, keep a running tally and post photographs of the garbage on a blog.
Her blog posts are brief and artistically minded, a stark visual catalog of refuse on an urban beach. Most shots feature a jagged piece of garbage sticking out of the sand with a lifeguard, a scavenging seagull or waves rolling to shore in the background.
More than 156 days along, Bayles has collected more than 634 pounds of refuse — heftier “than the world’s heaviest sumo wrestler,” she writes.
She arrives at sunset, after crowds have packed up and gone, the sand deserted except for the occasional runner or strolling couple enjoying the fading light.
She straps on her watch and slips on a single leather glove, a reusable plastic bag in one hand and a digital camera in the other.
Garbage, she has found, is a blight so ubiquitous along California’s coast that even at a popular, picturesque beach like Santa Monica, it’s never hard to find.
In her litter sessions, Bayles comes across both the ordinary and the strange: a child’s doll, a rickety board with protruding nails, syringes, a can of ant-killer.
She has found remnants of an entire feast: silverware, plates and food scraps intact. Beachgoers — skinny dippers, perhaps — have left complete wardrobes. And there is seasonal litter like Mylar balloons after Valentine’s Day.
But usually it’s a predictable smattering of plastic bags, bottles, cigarette butts, paper cups and candy wrappers.
“Most of the time it’s just the same boring stuff, which kind of makes me upset,” she said. “We’re making things out of a material that lasts hundreds of years, but we only use it for a few minutes.”
If a bird tries to make off with an empty chips bag or cigarette pack, she chases after it.
“I’ve seen a sea gull try to gulp down a plastic Bic lighter right in front of me,” she said. “And try taking something away from a seagull. You can’t do it.”
At the end of each cleanup session, Bayles sets a shipping scale on the trunk of her car and weighs the day’s take, recording it in a small notebook. The average is 4.9 pounds.
Researchers say beach cleanups do little to counter ocean debris. The real problem, they say, is the throwaway culture of today’s consumers and the failure of cities to do enough to keep waste out of the storm water system.
Others have applauded Bayles efforts and the inspiration it has given to her blog readers to remove rubbish from their own shores.
The conservation group Oceana named Bayles a finalist for its Ocean Hero award earlier this year and she has spawned several imitators, including Danielle Richardet, who started collecting trash and cigarette butts in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina and posting the results on her own count
“The fact is, Sara has broken it down into an easy, manageable time anybody can go out and do,” Richardet said.
Readers from the Great Lakes to the Eastern Seaboard are now weighing the trash they collect, snapping photos and sending Bayles their thoughts. She posts their tallies on her blog.
Since her undertaking has begun, she’s become more of an activist, mentoring a high school ocean stewardship club and traveling to Sacramento to lobby for a ban of single-use plastic bags. She and her husband, a marine biology professor, plan to join an expedition that will study a giant vortex of garbage floating in the South Pacific.
For now, her work is not even halfway done. There are hundreds of pounds of trash to collect, hundreds of ocean sunsets.