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The drive on the Pacific Coast Highway in California towards Monterey Bay, framed on either side by jagged cliffs and emerald ocean, has been ranked as one of the top 10 scenic road trips of the world. But behind the scenes of this visual splendor is a dark and filthy secret; 8,659 pounds of trash that washes up in the Monterey shores every year. The joy of your picturesque journey might turn down a notch, when you realize that you are unwittingly part of the equation that generates this colossal problem. Over 80% of the plastic pollution that ends up in the ocean begins on land. Most of the litter on our streets floats to our storm drains, leading to the ocean or nearest body of water.

Every Earth Day, the marine environmental organization, Save Our Shores (SOS) coordinates the largest cleanup efforts in Santa Cruz, San Lorenzo River and Del Monte Beach in Monterey. In 2013, a total of 523 volunteers from schools, girls scouts and boy scouts, religious, and business groups and individual drop–ins celebrate Earth Day bringing their own buckets, gloves, shovels and reusable bags; to help this stretch of the Californian  coastline revert to an eco-friendly, no-waste reality.

Every year, volunteers pick up around 700 pounds of trash and recycling, the most common item collected being cigarette butts. Similar reports from the Southern California organizations, Heal the Bay and Save Our Beach point to a pervasive problem. In fact, the Washington, D.C. organization, Ocean Conservancy, reports that international coastal cleanup efforts have yielded 10 million pounds of trash in the year 2012. The most common items being “cigarettes, food packaging and plastic bottles.”

These beach cleanups demonstrate the power of how each individual can bring about a monumental change. For 30 years, SOS has been coordinating over 200 beach cleanups every year. 27,080 pounds of pollution was prevented from entering the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 2012 alone.

In the last 27 years, Ocean Conservancy volunteers have found 9,806,905 plastic bags, “which required 1,176 barrels of oil to produce;” 57 million cigarette butts, “which, if stacked vertically, would be as tall as 3,867 Empire State Buildings;” and 1,017,444 diapers, “enough to put one on every child born in Japan last year.”

The underlying theme of these non-profits is education and awareness, connecting people to the ocean; showing them how their actions affect the marine environment, and offering choices to make a positive impact.

When junior girl scout Rihanna Razack signed up for the beach cleanup as part of the leadership project requirement for the Girl Scout Bronze Award, Rihanna’s high point of the trip was a day at the beach with her friends. The field trip turned out to be an eye-opener for Rihanna, that inspired in her a newfound respect for the fragile resource; the ocean.

The first leg of the trip comprised of interactive educational presentations where students learned fundamental ocean concepts such as food webs, the impact of pollution on marine animals and ecosystems, American consumer habits and waste generation. Through rounds of play, students collected colored beads, representing their food source. In the later rounds, some students were told that they had become entangled in a piece of plastic and were now couldn’t use their right hand to gather food. This simulation enlightened students on how marine debris debilitates creatures of land and sea. The macabre sideshows of dead birds with assorted plastic junk in their guts drove the point home.

The display of “plastic pollution fashion” caught the fancy of the whole troop. A whole line of jewelry was fashioned out of single use and throw-away items like bread clips, bottle caps, bar straws, broken seashells and  seaglass.

After four hours of combing the beach for assorted litter, the scouts were dismayed at the huge haul of garbage they collected.

“Plenty of trash was dumped on the beach, whenever we took a step, we had to dodge one or two pieces of trash,” stated Razack. “My friends and I took a few plastic bags and started collecting as much trash as we could. We filled five large trash bags! A stray bottle cap is all it takes to choke a seagull! Each cap we collected, saved the life of a baby bird!”

Razack’s act of goodwill earned her a Girl Scout Bronze Award, and more importantly, helped her recognize her potential in making a difference.

People forget that the beach is not just a fun place but the home of many fish and birds too. It feels good to have helped save many lives is the message she took back home.

Zenobia Khaleel is a stay at home mom who dabbles in a lot of adventures (and misadventures), and is passionate about writing, traveling, acting, direction, girl scouts, and community volunteering. Some of her articles have been published in The Hindu and The Khaleej Times.