A Litter-Free Coastline Is a Community Service Project and an Education for District Residents

Despite pandemic-related challenges, residents of a California sewer district remove an impressive amount of trash from shorelines and waterways.

A Litter-Free Coastline Is a Community Service Project and an Education for District Residents

Volunteers from the 2019 cleanup show off their collection of trash.

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It’s no doubt that COVID-19 has disrupted lives and brought new challenges to getting things done. That didn’t keep California’s Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District from continuing its long history of taking part in a Coastal Cleanup Day, albeit with some modifications.

The cleanup day is part of a statewide California Coastal Commissions (CCC) initiative that started 36 years ago when residents along the Pacific Ocean became concerned about a large amount of litter and plastic debris appearing on the shoreline. At the first event, more than 5,000 people showed up to collect the trash. Since then, more volunteers have come forward, including participants from cities and areas affected by the trash.

The Fairfield-Suisun district has been involved for 22 years and usually attracts 400 to 700 residents. The district serves some 135,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in central Solano County, 40 miles northeast of San Francisco. Its 48-square-mile service area includes 70 miles of sewer; average wastewater flow is 10 to 15 mgd.

Half-day activity

“Even though our service area does not border the coast, our creeks and streams ultimately empty into the San Francisco Bay, which empties into the ocean,” says Lexi Valenti, junior engineer and lead organizer for the event.

The district has 25 cleanup sites in its area, each with a team captain responsible for the day’s activities. Volunteers from scouts, youth and church groups, schools and the community college take part. This year the youngest participant was 4 years old; the oldest was 77. Some volunteers in kayaks clean up the marshes and waterways.

Every year, one month before the cleanup, a large billboard appears along a major highway and advertises the event. The day is also promoted through social media, on the district website, and through news media. Much of the promotion is through word-of-mouth by way of residents who return every year.

The event takes place on the third Saturday in September, typically from 8 a.m. to noon. Volunteers receive supplies such as buckets, grabbers, gloves, trash bags and hand sanitizer. Water and snacks are available to them. Each captain gives a presentation warning volunteers about items such as needles that are unsafe to pick up.

“We supply a sharps container that is dedicated to needles and other sharp objects,” Valenti says. “Only adults are allowed to handle sharps. We dispose of the sharps containers properly accordingly after the event.”

After all the trash is picked up and bagged, a hauling company collects and weighs the bags.

The district announces who collected the most trash through social media and on its website. Each year includes a competition for who can collect the strangest trash item. Last year’s winner was a stolen parcel box found along the shore. 

Covid challenges

The district made several adjustments last year to continue the cleanup through COVID. The CCC changed the event to include the entire month of September and asked participants to clean up their backyards, neighborhoods, local parks and storm drains, while keeping with established CDC guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks.

The cleanup day theme was “Protect Your Happy Place,” emphasizing the value to neighborhoods. District residents were tasked to clean up their locales instead of going to the usual 25 sites. They received the usual tools and supplies and were encouraged to use their own household items like tongs as a picker, their own trash bags and other materials. Videos on the district website gave the safety information, and a checklist was available for download.

In addition, the CCC provided a smartphone app where volunteers could record the items and the amounts they retrieved. The app also recorded other information, such as how many miles participants walked. Later, the CCC recorded and analyzed the data to see how much trash was collected and what kinds.

Impressive metrics

More than 6,300 disposable masks and plastic gloves were retrieved and recorded; plastic grocery bags were still among the most common trash items. “This year the app was used more because of the virtual nature of the event,” Valenti says. “Despite the challenge we had with the pandemic, we still managed to collect 4,000 pounds of trash through our volunteers.”

Statewide, the CCC reported that 70,000 pounds of refuse were collected during September, and more than 10,000 people took part. 


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