Talking Trash

In a single year, over 10 million surfers, tourists and Los Angeles residents walk along the 3.4 miles of shoreline on Huntington Beach in southern California, bringing along all the standard trip-to-the-beach necessities, such as drinks, sunscreen, towels, chairs, umbrellas, snacks, fast food and toys. Inevitably, some things are left behind.

But debris from humans isn’t uncommon. Down the coast, the city of San Diego manages 27 linear miles of beach, which entices over 20 million people per year to visit. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore receives over 2 million visitors per year, while more than 14 million visit South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach. No matter the location, the story is the same: people leave trash, and to protect Nature’s asset, both economically and environmentally, the beaches must be cleaned and maintained.

Know Thy Beach And Protect It

“You need to know and understand the dynamic of the beach and what Mother Nature is going to throw at you,” says Dennis Simmons, beach manager for the city of San Diego’s Park and Recreation Department. “You need to understand what is using the beaches--not just the people, but the birds, invertebrates and sea life.”

One example is the protection of grunion. These small, sardine-sized fish use the sandy beaches for nesting. At high tide, the female burrows into the sand and lays eggs, and the male fertilizes the eggs. At the next high tide (two weeks later), the eggs hatch, and the small grunion are swept out to sea. “We have a specific beach-grooming protocol that helps us be protective of the grunion’s nesting cycle,” says Simmons.

To protect fragile bluffs from erosion, maintenance staff collects the kelp washed onto the shore. The kelp is then packed at the base of the bluff to create dunes. Since the kelp is made of 90-percent water, it dries and shrinks, so more is added as needed. “We’ve been able to reduce the tide and storm damage by having the kelp dunes in front of the bluffs,” says Simmons. “We also use the kelp to build berms in front of the lifeguard towers.”

At Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, protecting the marram grass is essential to the dunes. The deep roots of the grass--over 6 feet deep--help stabilize the dunes. “Our crews clean the debris from the marram grass by using tongs rather than litter-picks to prevent damage to the grass,” says John Kowlok, chief of maintenance at Indiana Dunes.

In Myrtle Beach, maintenance staff examines walk-overs for safety, and removes trash from sea oats and grass in the protected sand dunes. Walk-overs are wooden pathways running from hotels, parking lots and streets to the beach. “The walk-overs keep people off the protected sand dunes while still allowing them access to the beach,” says Richard Kirby, parks superintendent for the city of Myrtle Beach Cultural and Leisure Services Department.

Clean And Safe

“Maintaining a beach-cleaning schedule is essential. Figure out where the problem spots are and what areas are used the most,” says Scott Smith, acting beach operations supervisor for the city of Huntington Beach. “Take care of the problem areas first, and then work your way out from there.”

And as with most beaches, all of the work must be done seven days a week during the peak season. Work is completed in the wee hours of the morning because the heavy equipment must be off the beach before the first beach-goers arrive, typically 8 a.m. or earlier. That means shifts often begin about the same time the party crowd is winding down, and some might decide to go for a stroll on the beach.

“We talk to our operators constantly about safety with the machines moving about 10 miles per hour. Our operators are trained to be on the lookout for people,” says Kirby. “The tractors are also outfitted with flashing yellow and white lights and LED arrows--like a wrecker’s lights--and beam spotlights.”

Hundreds Of Barrels Of Trash On The Beach

With over 400 trash cans to dump daily, Huntington Beach uses a one-operator truck that grabs the container and deposits it into the dumpster mounted on the truck. To clean areas difficult to reach with the beach-cleaning machines or along the waterline, the staff uses litter-picks. Beach rakes (think of a tractor with a huge rake) are used to rake the debris into rows, and then a large mechanical sifter sifts the debris from the sand. The debris is contained and removed while the sand falls back to the beach.

“On average, we remove over 100 tons of trash and debris from the beach on a monthly basis,” says Smith. “We are a seven-day-a-week, 365-days-a-year operation. Every night we’re sweeping the beach and cleaning the restrooms.”

Myrtle Beach also uses a one-operator truck to remove the trash from 350 barrels stationed along its 10 miles of beach. “The machine takes in the summer about five hours to go from one end of the beach to the other,” says Kirby. “If [the trash removal] was done by personnel, it would take the same amount of time, but you would need three to four people.”

Moving Forward

In other areas, agencies are looking at the larger picture. “Last year in our heavy-use areas, we started using solar-powered trash- and recycling compactors,” says Kowlok. “They help us save a little on the trips to empty them, and for some reason the recycling is almost 100 percent.”

In California, beach managers have formed a working group, the Beach Ecology Coalition Maintenance Practices, to develop good environmental stewardship procedures.

Impossible Dream Or Just Common Sense?

With the recent changes in attitudes towards the environment and personal responsibilities, keeping your beach cleaner and more environmentally sound might be as simple as forming a working group of environmentalists, researchers, regulatory agencies and volunteers to educate the public.

The National Parks Service has a goal of removing all trash cans from facilities and educating people about the effects that trash is having on the environment. The policy is commonly referred to as Carry In, Carry Out. Several national parks have already removed trash cans in an effort to increase recycling and personal responsibility. Plus, it eliminates the problems trash creates with the expense of removal, cleaning, litter and animals.

Maybe one day trash receptacles can be eliminated because they won’t be needed anymore.

Tammy York is the owner of LandShark Communications LLC, which specializes in media and public relations for recreation businesses. Her upcoming book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Cincinnati, is due out March 2009, and can be pre-ordered through You can reach her at