Paddleboarding to clean up the ocean

Many take part in beach cleanups. Relatively few, however, pick up trash floating offshore.

Enter H20 Trash Patrol. Encinitas couple Patti and Lorenzo Diaz created the nonprofit to liberate the ocean of marine debris. Perched atop stand-up paddleboards (SUPs), they regularly gather trash from the San Elijo Lagoon and waterways beyond.

“It’s amazing what you find out there,” Patti said. “When I take someone new, it feels like we’re going on a garbage tour.”

The idea was born about five years ago, when the couple was paddleboarding through the Aqua Hedionda Lagoon. They couldn’t help but notice trash floating about.

Picking it up, they realized, was a chance to practice a message they preached to their three kids: always leave a place better than the way you found it.

“We never liked the trash,” Patti said. “But we decided we can’t complain about it and do nothing. It comes down to personal responsibility.”

As far as the couple is aware, H20 Trash Patrol is the first organization to use SUPs to clean waterways. There are advantages to the approach: it’s easier to spot debris standing up; their inflatable SUPs can fit into tight spaces and aren’t easily dinged; and they don’t leave a carbon footprint.

“I’ve developed this superhuman ability to see trash out there,” Lorenzo said.

To maximize collections, their SUPs tow a raft and trashcans. And they wield custom scoopers, hauling in 250 pounds of trash between them on good days. The couple then sorts and recycles what they can.

Although the SUPs are stable, collecting some pieces of debris demands a balancing act. Staying afloat is particularly desirable when paddling through more polluted spots like the San Luis Rey River outlet.

“You see the impact of plastic and all the other debris — it’s not pretty,” Lorenzo said.

In 2011, the city of Oceanside awarded them a contract to pick up debris at Oceanside Harbor twice a week. Additionally, they lead volunteer cleanups at the San Elijo Lagoon bi-monthly. Plus, they regularly clean locations like the San Diego Bay on their own dime.

Grants and donations cover the nonprofit’s expenses. But they’ve yet to take a paycheck from the gig.

To make ends meet, Patti is a graphic designer and Lorenzo repairs wetsuits. Still, they focus most of their energy on the waterways.

Ultimately, they’d like to secure more contracts with coastal cities across the county. The aim: support themselves and others.

“The true thing I want to see come from this is environmental jobs, where people are paid a decent wage and can feel good about what they’re doing at the end of the day,” Patti said. “At the same time, we’d like to keep the volunteer cleanups going to raise awareness.”

On that note, the nonprofit also has an educational arm. They regularly visit elementary schools to talk about the impact of an estimated 14 billion pounds of trash flowing into the world’s oceans every year. This, Patti noted, takes a toll on marine life and the environment.

“We teach the kids about how simple changes like proper recycling and picking up land-based trash prevents marine issues,” Patti said.

For doing their part and more to combat the problem, San Diego Coastkeeper honored the nonprofit with its Marine Conservation Award last month, recognizing the group has picked up 16,000 pounds of trash since 2011.

The nonprofit logs what it takes in and then passes along the information to ocean stakeholders, Patti noted.

Through awards and word of mouth, Patti said the group’s message is spreading. Eventually, the couple envisions local chapters of H20 Trash Patrol forming across the state.

Patti has a degree in aquatic biology, and Lorenzo has surfed since his early teens. So even before beginning the environmental quest, the couple was interested in protecting the ocean.

“Getting off the beach and taking that first step wasn’t easy,” Lorenzo said. “I’m glad we did.”

“Realistically, with all the trash in the ocean, are we making a huge dent?” Patti said. “No. But it’s building awareness and getting the ball rolling.”

Visit h20trashpatrol.com to donate and for information about volunteering. Also, the group welcomes business sponsorships.

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