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Column: Hot days, packed beaches, lots of trash. It’s Josey to the rescue!

A man sits in the sand with the pier and beach in the background at sunset
Josey Peters rests for a moment on the sand to take in the sunset in Santa Monica.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

The first piece of trash Josey Peters found on the beach was a flattened paper cup. He bent down, as he would hundreds of times in the next two hours, and tossed the cup into a big black garbage bag slung over his shoulder.

Just south of the Santa Monica Pier, where the Ferris wheel was spinning and the roller coaster carried passengers into a hazy sky, he came upon dozens of white, BB-sized Styrofoam beads scattered on wet sand.

“Dude, this is a tragedy,” said Peters, a onetime rock ’n’ roll guitarist, frizzy hair exploding out from under his hat. “These cheap boogie boards break apart with one day’s use.”

Summer arrived early in Los Angeles, with temperatures topping 100 degrees in some areas on Tuesday. So people traded asphalt for surf and sand. Even at 6 p.m., thousands of people still lounged and frolicked on Santa Monica’s main beach. L.A.’s summer anthem of squawking gulls and shrieking children rose above the rhythm of crashing waves and floated on the evening breeze.

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The 55-year-old Peters, on a mission since 2007 to clean up other people’s messes in public areas, knew he’d have plenty of work to do.

“This isn’t as bad as it’ll be in the middle of summer,” Peters said, but he expected to have no problem filling two bags.

People look down from the pier as a man carries trash on the sand
Josey Peters picks up trash near the Santa Monica Pier.
(Steve Lopez/Los Angeles Times)

He picked up a blue surgical mask, then another, and another.

“This is the new normal,” Peters said.

I wrote about Peters in the fall of 2019, when he was working the area along Ballona Creek, where it trickles toward the sea on the south side of Marina del Rey.

“This is gonna blow your mind,” he had told me before that first outing. “You’ll never be the same.”

It had rained before that outing, and we found massive fields of debris that had washed through storm drains across the basin and out toward the ocean. It looked like you could walk on water, the slick was so dense, and tons of throwaway cups, plastic bottles, food wrappers and other junk lined the banks.

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In the summer, Peters makes the switch from creek to beach. He focuses on plastics and other scraps that can get swept out by the surf and harm marine life, a personal mission that began when he was 7 and his father led him on lake cleanups in Michigan. Santa Monica has a ban on single-use plastics, in part to protect the bay, but that’s tough to enforce.

As we headed under the Santa Monica Pier, where Peters once found a sofa, and once “nearly yanked my shoulder out” trying to pull a big trash bin out of the surf, he told me he’s been going out about three times a week lately. It depends on the weather and the crowds.

Peters attended a military academy as a youngster, worked in cannabis and organic produce, looks eternally ready for the band to get back together, and otherwise belongs in a Thomas Pynchon novel. He is currently between jobs. He used to live in an RV but hasn’t owned a vehicle in years, and doesn’t want one. He rides his bike to the beach from the Venice bungalow he shares with 10 people, heads down to the water’s edge and makes his contribution to the planet.

A pile of trash on the sand
Some of the trash collected by Josey Peters near the Santa Monica Pier.
(Steve Lopez/Los Angeles Times)

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By now, it’s a form of beach ballet, the way Peters swoops and darts like a sea sprite, draped in loose black clothing. He weaves around families enjoying L.A.’s greatest free spectacle, checking with the nearest person to make sure any items he claws out of the sand are discards rather than treasures.

Peters picked up a flip-flop, an insole, a foam insert from a bikini cup, an N95 mask, twisted sheets of cellophane and one of his most despised forms of beach trash.

A splintered bucket made of flimsy yellow plastic.

“What I’m holding is one of the most obscene products ever developed by mankind,” Peters said. “A plastic beach toy that shatters in your hands. What are we thinking, dude?”

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In his dealings with people on the beach, Peters lives by a few guiding principles.

No judgment. No preaching. Better to make friends than enemies.

“The idea with this whole gig is to act in kind of a responsible manner so that people will emulate you,” Peters said.

Councilman Mike Bonin says he’s angry about the suffering he sees. So let’s get going on solutions.

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Most people do the right thing, making use of the 380 trash bins and 120 recycling bins placed on the beach by the city of Santa Monica. Spokesperson Constance Farrell said they’re collected daily, and tractors come along every day to groom the sand and pick up any extra trash.

Peters picks up bottles and cans on wet sand but doesn’t bag them because that would weigh him down. He tosses them onto the dry sand for pickup by the tractors.

“This is really pretty clean today,” he said, scoping out the scene to the north, toward Malibu, and to the south, back toward the pier. “I’m telling you, in all the years I’ve been doing this, I have to say almost nobody wants to leave trash in the ocean, dude. Nobody.”

But some items are indeed discarded or forgotten, and other trash gets carried in by the waves. It never stops. And yet Peters, though heartbroken about the way humankind pollutes the planet, never seems to get discouraged. It helps that he gets the occasional show of appreciation, and even the offer of tips.

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Peters isn’t the only volunteer on the beach, said a lifeguard named Michael, but he’s the one who shows up most often.

“I love the work he’s doing,” said Michael.

A man strolling the beach said of Peters’ stewardship, “It gives me hope for humanity.”

I lost sight of Peters for a moment, but he soon emerged from scavenging in the darkness under the pier and told me he’d just gotten another thank you.

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“A couple of women, probably in their 60s or 70s, took a look at what I’m doing and they smiled … and gave me a thumbs-up,” Peters said. “That’s the magic, dude.”

In recent years, the boardwalk has become an open-air clinic for poor residents, people struggling with addiction and those in physical or mental distress.

Peters said there’s now a fledgling Los Angeles chapter of Project Rescue Ocean, an international nonprofit that promotes citizen initiatives around marine protection. The founder, Benoit Schumann, texted me from France to say of Peters, “He is adorable. We each try to act and lead by example.”

The local chapter has begun organizing beach cleanups, and Heal the Bay in Santa Monica also offers volunteer opportunities for anyone interested.

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But Peters, free-spirited freelancer, needs no added incentive to pitch in. He filled his expected two bags on Tuesday evening, then paused to take in the glory as the setting sun choreographed another light show in the sky.

As summer rolls in, let’s follow Josey Peters’ lead and respect this precious gift, for the rewards are eternal.

That’s the magic, dude.


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