International Coastal Cleanup Day - Everything You Need to Know

As far as making a difference to our environment goes, it doesn’t get much bigger than the International Coastal Cleanup Day. This annual event involves people across the globe in beach clean-ups. The Coastal Cleanup Day takes place on the third Saturday of September.

When did the International Coastal Cleanup Event Begin?

The Ocean Conservancy started the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) in 1986. Initially the brainchild of two passionate ocean conservationists, Linda Maraniss and Kathy O’Hara, the first clean rallied volunteers in and around the Texas area. The aim was to utilize volunteers as a way of clearing waste from the waterways of the world and record the items collected to help better understand the problem.

Even back then, the number of pieces of plastic washing up on shores around the world was on the rise3. Right from the beginning, the waste that they collected caused them to realize just how big the problem was. For many, the statistics shared every year from these events have played a big role in highlighting the size of the ocean pollution problem.

Here we are, over 30 years later, and this global movement continues to grow its impact. What started as a simple clean-up has now grown significantly, becoming a global event involving and motivating more than one million volunteers1 who help to clean beaches across the world.

Throughout its history, the Coastal Cleanup Day has stayed true to its aims, to help our oceans and mitigate the impact of our waste on marine life too. As a result, they've been instrumental in creating a global movement for trash-free seas.

Who is the Ocean Conservancy?

In a nutshell, they are the organization that works to conserve our oceans, seeking active ways in which we can save our oceans and marine life. As one of the highest-profile ocean conservation organizations, they work tirelessly to spread awareness and encourage change. From this came the International Coastal Cleanup Day.

Across the world, we produce a staggering 348 million tonnes of plastic4 each year of which around 8 million tonnes find their way into our oceans. Given quite how much manmade trash finds its way into our oceans it's not too hard to see quite how much of a mountainous challenge we face cleaning them up, a challenge we have to face collectively.

The Ocean Conservancy describes itself as the voice for the ocean. They tackle predominantly the tough issues that face our oceans that have been previously ignored or swept aside through the decades.

One of their primary channels is social media. They provide updates, sharing facts and research, and provide their follower’s reasons to make a change and get involved. All of this, they hope, through collective action, will lead us towards an ocean that is free of trash. Whether that is ridding them of plastic straws or bottle caps, every little helps.

Despite the ambition, the Ocean Conservancy is well aware of the challenges. Therefore, we need powerful initiatives and a way of stopping the sources of trash.

Through empowering individuals to become a part, they can actively tackle the problem. They are informing and engaging on a level that now engages over a million volunteers to roll up their sleeves and help to rid their local beaches of waste each year. Through tips and techniques, they are helping people to participate in change. As such, the International Coastal Cleanup day has been nothing short of inspirational.

What Have They Achieved and How Has it Grown?

Single Use Plastic Collected on the Beach Cleanup
Picture shows a single-use plastic balloon with a string attached that could entangle marine life collected off a beach in Massachusetts, USA. Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

It is fair to say that the International Coastal Cleanup Day is an ongoing process. Meanwhile, researchers have also assessed the effectiveness of beach cleans further informing improved efficacy2. From its smaller beginnings in the US, the Ocean Conservancy probably had no idea quite how big it would become.

Of course, whereas removing waste is crucial, our careless disposal of waste and leaks in the recycling and processing of it makes for part of the cause. Arguably the root of the cause is quite how much we consume in the first place. As a result, the more people they have engaged in their annual clean-up event, both directly and indirectly through information and stats shared by the media and beyond, the more people are aware of the damage waste causes.

As the ocean covers 71% of the earth, we need it and we need to take care of it. It is not there for misuse. The ocean looks after us more than we realize. It absorbs carbon dioxide, produces food, and provides life. It is so vast, much of it has not yet been explored.

Despite this, we have to deal with what we know and we know that ocean trash is causing a problem. From the many different types of plastic waste littering our beaches to discarded fishing nets and more, we can only deal with the problem through action.

Involving people in beach cleans, of course, all play a vital role in prompting us to consider what we purchase, how much we waste, and where it might end up. Supporting outcomes include everything from encouraging people to buy local and thereby reduce packaging waste to making changes at home.

The more people that might choose to shop at zero-waste grocery stores, through going plastic free in the bathroom or buying plastic free gifts all result in a little less trash that might end up polluting our environment.

So, the 2019 report from the Ocean Conservancy paints a clear picture of progress. It clearly shows the scale of their impact to help make beaches and oceans trash-free. The figures are quite incredible:

  • 1,080,358 volunteers
  • 23,333,816 pounds of waste collected
  • 10,584,041 KG of waste collected
  • 22,301 miles of coastline covered
  • 97,457,984 items collected
  • 122 participating countries

Compare this to five years previously:

  • 648,015 volunteers
  • 12,329,332 pounds of waste collected
  • 12,914 miles of coastline covered

Along with this, they have also helped to not only clean up beaches but also what lurks beneath the ocean:

  • 444 miles of underwater habitat
  • 80,597 pounds of waste
  • 134,717 items collected

Throughout all of this, the top five items collected in 2019 big beach clean up included:

  • Cigarette Butts
  • Food Wrappers
  • Straws
  • Forks, knives and spoons
  • Plastic bottles

With 122 countries involved in the process, a large portion of the world is now on board. The top five countries are:

  • Philipines
  • United States
  • Hong Kong
  • Ecuador
  • Tanzania

What’s more, it is likely that more people will continue to get on board with the initiative. Since 1986, the initiative has grown year on year.

How Can You Get Involved?

Compostable Plastic Collected on a Beach Clean
Picture shows two "eco-friendly" plastic cups collected on a beach cleanup. Despite claims, some types of eco-friendly plastic requires commercial facilities to decompose and still can cause a problem on our beaches. Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Of course, it is not just about heading to your local beach and collecting rubbish. This is a process that is logged and reported. Each volunteer participating in the cleanups is asked to tally the items they collect which are then centralized and reported. This data provides important insights as to the various types and volumes of plastic waste on our beaches, which in turn can be used by science and policymakers as we seek to reduce the impact of our waste on the oceans. Therefore, to begin, you are going to need the Clean Swell app from the Ocean Conservancy. This app will allow you to log all of the waste that you collect.

Starting a Clean-up

If you want to start a beach cleanup then you are going to need to find an area that requires cleaning.

You will also need to speak to the relevant authorities to gain access if required. Along with this, you are also going to need to find a way of disposing of all the waste you find correctly.

Once you have identified an area, you will need to visit the area beforehand to identify the best spot for the check-in. Then you will need to designate an area for the rubbish you collect as well as the areas that volunteers will clean.

Using this form, you can register for the event with the Ocean Conservancy.

The next phase of the process is getting volunteers together. You're encouraged to use all avenues to reach out such as word of mouth and social media. Encourage friends to spread the word and share your event and you can even send out flyers. The more volunteers, the more waste you can collect during your beach cleanup.

Next, you will need to consider supplies. This will include gloves, bags, first aid kits, hand sanitizer, and a sign-in sheet. You will also need to ensure the area is safe and secure too.  Along with this, people might want to bring their own food, so encourage them to bring it plastic-free containers, helping to reduce waste.

If you don’t have the time to begin a clean-up then you can always join an existing local cleanup. The Ocean Conservancy has an interactive map that you can use to find a local event. Also, take a look through the likes of Facebook to find advertised events.

Whether you are starting an event or assisting an event, doing your bit is the most important thing.

International Coastal Cleanup Day is Making a Difference

This global event has grown phenomenally throughout the past three decades. It has gone from a small-scale event with thousands of volunteers to millions. As a global community, we have to take control of how we live. The planet is not a dumping ground for waste and so, it is important that we take care of it.

These events are a great way of promoting change and assisting change. They can have a significant impact in many ways, especially when there are over 100 countries involved. So perhaps we can begin to manage the problem more effectively, especially when all it takes is to join an event and play your part.

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Pin Image Portrait International Coastal Cleanup Day - Everything You Need to Know
1WHAT MOTIVATES PEOPLE TO VOLUNTEER: A CASE STUDY USING COASTAL CLEANUP DAY IN SAN LUIS OBISPO, CALIFORNIA. Kristine M. Liddie, Advised by Professor James Keese. College of Liberal Arts. California Polytechnic State University.
2Tomoya Kataoka, Hirofumi Hinata, Evaluation of beach cleanup effects using linear system analysis, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 91, Issue 1, 2015, Pages 73-81, ISSN 0025-326X,
3Plastic Debris in the Ocean. Authors: Peter Kershaw (chair), Saido Katsuhiko, Sangjin Lee, Jon Samseth and Doug Woodring Science writer: John Smith
4Plastics - The Facts 2018. PlasticsEurope. Association of Plastics Manufacturers
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