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Washington Coastsavers Use 'Voluntourism' To Propel Marine Debris Cleanup

What are your plans for getting outdoors this spring? Do they involve a beach?  If so, a growing group of coastal-cleanup volunteers wants your help. The WashingtonCoastsavers want you to volunteer just a bit during your vacation — or maybe just as part of your weekend.

In fact, Washington Governor Jay Inslee has declared April 23 the “Washington Coast Cleanup Day.”

These gatherings have become increasingly popular. Some groups have even coined a term for the phenomenon:  “voluntourism.”  

A Spring Cleanup On the Olympic Peninsula

On a recent afternoon near La Push and Forks, the sun beams down on Rialto Beach, in Olympic National Park. This coastline features prominently in the "Twilight" series. But the folks here aren’t chasing after fictional vampires or werewolves.

Instead, they’re filling up bright yellow trash bags with debris.   

"Well, look at this! A major find,” exclaims George Dooley  from Sequim, as he holds up what looks like a wave-worn bleach bottle. It’s still bright turquoise though, with a hot-pink top.

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU
George Dooley, from Sequim, shows off a wide array of plastic trash items that he found washed up on the beach.

“And an old soul [from a tennis shoe]," Dooley says, laughing at the weirdness of it all. He’s got an old PVC pipe in in his bag, lots of bottle caps, and all kinds of plastic.

“Rope, diapers — you name it, we got it,” he says, carefully handling his treasures with rubber gloves provided by the Coastsavers group. 

A Toxic Convenience: Styrofoam

Dooley’s wife Diane is right behind him. Her bag is much lighter.

“I have a lot of Styrofoam, especially tiny little pieces of Styrofoam, that just get down in with everything else, it's really hard to see among all the little white rocks,” she says, holding several Styrofoam coffee cups that are still intact.

That tiny Styrofoam is actually a big problem. It washes in from all over.

This was an gathering of the Lions Clubs International.

Their purpose: to remove as much trash from that beach as they could. Their totals on this particular day didn’t fill a dumpster. And it didn’t weigh much. But that’s not really the point.  Nancy Messmer says it’s about making connections and spreading the word.

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU
Nancy Mesmer, Environment Captain for the Washington, British Columbia and Northern Idaho chapters of the International Lions Clubs.

An International Gathering

“Such a beautiful day - everyone is doing so well,” Messmer says from behind the registration table.

She’s the “environment captain” for a tri-state region of Lions clubs that covers British Columbia, Washington and Northern Idaho.

“Did you talk to Bernard?” she asks?  

Bernard is an 80-year-old Canadian from Gabriola Island. He traveled two days from north of Nanaimo to join the fun.  Nearby, Jackie Larsen, from Port Angeles, is part of a huddle of seniors who are getting ready to go. She says the beach was already looking pretty good when they arrived a few hours earlier.

"We didn’t find much at all, so, it was surprising,” she said, speculating that the wave action on the beach plays a role here.

“We were up high, but we didn’t find all that much. I was really kind of shocked.”

The Biggest Foe: Tiny Plastics

But the small haul doesn’t mean the ocean is clean, according to the federal agency overseeing it.

“There is a lot of marine debris and the fact that the beaches are clean does not mean that debris is not out there in the ocean,” says Nir Barnea, who coordinates the international marine debris program for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says plastics are a huge and growing problem.

“So we would like to think that no marine debris is good - but plastic, there’s just so much of it.”  

About 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, Barnea says. And it never really goes away. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller often colorful particles that some marine creatures confuse with food. These are known as microplastics.

“And microplastics tend to absorb chemicals. They’re also ingested by little marine animals and are then food to larger animals and so on it goes,” he says.  

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU
Styrofoam is a huge problem for beach cleanup, because it breaks up easily and contains toxics.

Wildlife Choking On Marine Debris

Researchers from the US Fish and Wildlife Service say scientists are finding these dirty plastics in the digestive systems of everything from fish and sea turtles to iconic albatrosses, which have been seen feeding plastics to their young. The federal government is now phasing in a ban on manufactured microplastic beads in cosmetics.  President Obama signed that legislation last December.

So picking up that old diaper or the bits of Styrofoam we heard about earlier? It really matters.

Just ask Sarah Creachbaum, the superintendant of Olympic National park, where this beach is located.  With a raven circling over her head, she says the Parks Service mission is to provide inspirational experiences, despite staff shortages. But the piles of plastic trash, they never stop coming.  So the “voluntourists” out here?

“It’s extraordinarily critical that we have people who come out and volunteer their time to help us get the job done. We couldn’t do it without them,” Creachbaum says.

Garbage Found; Friendships Made

And Lions are just one of the dozens of non-profits that pitch in. Also out in force this day were a whole other set of volunteers, with the SurfriderFoundation. Among them, two women from Seattle who have made it their tradition to come out every year for the cleanups since 2009. They always celebrate their first find with a shout out. And Schyler Mason says each time it’s been different, but it always feels great to give back.

“To me being here is a privilege. We are so lucky to live in a region like this. We are so blessed to be able to come out here and to be with friends,” Mason says.

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU
Schyler Mason (l) and Giovana Casey have been coming to the beach every year since 2009 for Coastsaver cleanup events. They enjoy the fellowship as well as the good feeling they say comes with pitching in.

Unforgettable were the two years after the tsunami in Japan, with all kinds of strange things washing up. That was also the year they found a spilled container load of brand new shoes all over the beach. There were no pairs, but otherwise enough to fill a storefront, says Mason’s friend Giovanna Casey.

“So it’s always very interesting. We always look for what’s our prize thing of the year for entertainment,” she says.  

Sometimes they’re out there in shorts and t-shirts, sometimes rain gear, she says. The weather and dynamics of the experience are ever changing, while other things are more constant. 

“We always find plastic water bottles, plastic water bottles. Those seem to last through everything,” Casey says.  

Coastsavers Gives Old Traditions A New Name

For still other local beach lovers, these traditions stretch back generations. Now, dozens of groups and state agencies organize cleanups under the umbrella of the Washington Coastsavers website. They’re happening several times a year. The next one will be coastwide in honor of this year's Earth Day.   

Coastsavers says volunteers who aren’t physically able to carry filled bags off the beach are welcome too. They can help with beachside registration.

And if you prefer indoor fun with beer and urban surf rock, there’s a first-ever fundraiser this year to help cover container costs for all the trash. That’s on April 9 at Seattle’s Mountaineers Clubhouse.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to