Pandemic pollution wreaking havoc on San Diego County beaches

A seagull helps itself to an overflowing trash can in Pacific Beach on Wednesday.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Face masks, latex gloves and takeout containers are piling up on the coastline, environmentalists say


Beaches in San Diego County and other parts of California are suffering the effects of the pandemic, as visitors have left behind a steady stream of trash, including disposable face masks, plastic takeout containers and other items, according to environmental groups that collect and track beach pollution.

“It’s really a function of all the single-use disposable plastic we use,” said Surfrider Foundation CEO Chad Nelson. “It’s an existing problem that has gotten notably worse since the pandemic.”

Surfrider’s beach cleanups regularly yield tons of trash each year, including cigarette butts, plastic bags and disposable dishes. This year, however, large-scale litter pickups, including Surfider’s annual “Morning After Mess” effort on July 5 to clean beaches after Independence Day celebrations, are on hold because of the COVID-19 restrictions on group events.

Because of that, Surfrider doesn’t have comparison numbers to last year’s events, Nelson said. But individual members are seeing trash stack up at their local sites, and tackling that with “solo cleanups” in compliance with social distancing rules. At many of these, they’re collecting new items, such as disposable surgical face masks and sterile wipes. Earlier in the pandemic, before mask mandates took effect, he said they found a lot of latex gloves.

“We have people who have been visiting these beaches for years, and years, and they’re reporting big increases in trash,” Nelson said. “We have a lot of anecdotal data. We’ve been doing solo cleanups. In a relatively short amount of time, we found 50 masks in San Diego.”

Ian Monahan, director of marketing for I Love a Clean San Diego, did an experiment to see how many masks he could pick up on his own.

“And yes, (personal protective equipment) is all over the place ,” Monahan said. “Disposable masks are being thrown in gutters, they’re all over the beaches. I separated out a bucket on my cleanup, and I separated about 35 in half an hour.”

The masks have paper components, but some also contain thin layers of plastic, which don’t break down in the environment. When it does disintegrate, those sheets of plastic can create micro-plastic particles, which may pose their own environmental hazards as marine animals ingest them, and the chemicals travel through the food web.

“That’s something we didn’t even have as a category (of trash) before, because we didn’t find them,” Nelson said.

In addition to this new type of waste, environmentalists said there is an uptick in some of the familiar forms, including single-use plastic bags and plastic takeout containers, straws and utensils. In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended the state’s single-use bag ban for 60 days to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission from reusable bags.

“The explosion of plastic bags at grocery stores, bringing back the flimsy plastic bags, is hugely damaging,” Monahan said. “We all understand that it was done in a precautionary manner, but the effect on our environment has been immediately damaging.”

And with restaurants closed to dining or offering only outdoor seating, many more people are ordering to go, and leaving it behind, Nelson said.

“We’ve seen a transition,” he said. “Restaurants are pretty much all takeout now. Because people can’t eat in the restaurants they get takeout, and take it to the beach.”

Monahan said he recently saw an entire deserted picnic site left behind at Pacific Beach near Chalcedony Street.

“I just walked up on a plastic picnic waste that people just left there in the sand, even though the trash can was 25 feet away,” he said. “This included the plastic containers, the plastic cups, and plastic bags, which blow everywhere like plastic tumbleweeds.”

Once beaches reopened after their temporary closure in the spring, they have been a go-to destination for many Southern Californians, and waste disposal systems can’t keep up at some sites, Nelson said.

“Trash management is overwhelmed, so trash cans are overflowing,” he said. “Animals like seagulls can get in and spread it, or the wind can blow it around.”

To help reduce the problem of beach pollution, the organizations recommend the following steps:

Limit your use of plastic. Bring a reusable bag to grocery stores that allow it. Decline straws and utensils when ordering takeout, and use your own silverware and paper or reusable straws instead.

“People shouldn’t be littering,” Nelson said. “If the trash cans are full, pack it in, pack it out approach. The second is to try to avoid those single-use plastics in the first pace. Pack your beach-going snacks in reusables.”

If you do use plastic bags or other items, Monahan said, recycle them immediately, at home or at beach blue bins.

“The other thing we can do is leave no trace,” he said. “Pick up after yourself, but also pick up around you, so the space you are in is left better than it was before.”

People can also coordinate with local environmental groups to clean their local beaches or watersheds individually, until pandemic restrictions are lifted and group cleanups resume. Volunteers should wear personal protective gear including gloves and masks, and use a picker to avoid handling trash directly, Nelson said.

“I guess, like everything else, the pandemic seems to have laid bare some of our fundamental problems, and pollution is one of them,” he said. “And the solution is source reduction.”

— Deborah Sullivan-Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune