Marine Trash in Southern California
Mark von Leffern


This study determined the impacts of marine trash accumulating along the Southern California coast by sampling four beaches, counting pieces of pollution within square meter transects five separate times along each beach. These counted solids were as follows: Seal Beach, 87; Huntington Beach, 70; Newport Beach, 137; and finally San Diego, 57. The two major components of marine trash found were plastics and wood debris (bamboo). The total number of plastics was 181, and the percentage of driftwood was about 35% of the total area. This put the total number of solids found on the beaches at 347. Much of the debris found gave an idea of the source of these pollutants, and whether they were point source pollutants or non point.

Southern California is an overdensely populated area. According to the US Census Bureau, the population of Orange County was 2,659,300 in January, 1997. This rapidly increasing population along the coast is the result of more industry, more transit, and thus more pollution running off into our coastal waters. If we are going to try managing our coast effectively, steps need to be taken towards becoming more sustainable, and reduce the amount of trash flowing into the environment. If steps arenít taken, we are going to find out what the carrying capacity of our environment really is. A sustainable society is both technically and economically possible. It's up to each individual to see to this, whether it be by effective management practices or simply not being careless with trash.

Key terms: marine trash; point and non point sources; carrying capacity; sustainable society


Coastal areas are among the most crowded and developed areas in the nation. More specifically, the Southern Californian coast, which is comprised of 60% of all Californians, two-thirds of the states population, lives in eight counties with populations greater than one million. Five of these eight counties are in Southern California. The rapidly growing area of Orange County, located along the Southern California coast, makes up about 749 square miles. In 1960, the total population here was 103,925 people. In 1980, Orange County was 1,932,921 people, and finally 1994 brought Orange County to 2,543,124 people. (Government Publication, 1998 Human demands are surpassing the carrying capacity of the environment unless steps are taken to change the way we treat the environment. The US Census Bureau estimated Orange Countyís population at 2,659,300 people as of January, 1997.

A map of Orange County Beaches

While we canít do much about the growing population, the link between sustainable economic development and effective environmental management is becoming increasingly evident. "If sustainable economic development is to last beyond short term economic gains, the support of an effectively managed environment is required. Growth derived from ecological depletion is not economically sustainable beyond a very short time horizon." (Frankel, 1995) The sea can then be a potential source of great wealth, provided the carelessness, stupidity, or greed of man have not destroyed it already.

It is apparent that the pollution entering our ocean is bad, and can have detrimental effects on the environment. However, many times these harmful effects, and even the source of the pollutants, are overlooked. In fact, thousands of people, including myself, surf, swim, and play in the ocean year round, completely oblivious to the harmful bacteria lurking in the water. As a result, we get sick.

In order to asses the importance of the various kinds of pollution we must first ask ourselves some questions:


For the millions of people that live in Southern California, the beaches are invaluable to them. Some of the benefits of the beaches to society in Southern California include:

Societies view of life in the 1950-60ís was lax. They could do anything and could not hurt the environment. However, this lifestyle would not last for long. As pollutants began to accumulate, people began realizing a need to protect the environment. The growing commercialization of the beach front in the following decades meant that there would be more pollution than ever. Unfortunately, many of our daily excursions to the beach have turned into disappointments when we reach our destinations to find beach closed and/or no fishing sings. Simply, the way we lead our lives lays the foundation for our modern day beach problems.

As the ocean has so many constraints placed upon it, there is only so much that it can sustain. The WCED defined sustainable development as "meeting the needs of present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (WCED, 1987) With everyone so dependent on the ocean for their physical as well as economic well being, it is imperative we effectively manage and sustain our environment, so we can preserve it for future generations. "If the overall cost to society implied by the restrictions of the scientifically-defined Environmental Capacity is judged to be too high, e.g. A factory cannot be built, with consequent massive unemployment, the social decision process may lead to acceptance of some environmental damage in order to extend the Environmental Capacity." (GESMP, 1986) However, hopefully the social decision will lead us into protecting the environment.


Before we can begin to combat pollution, we must first identify the source of pollutants, and then regulate those. The Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP) are an international advisory body consisting of the IMO/FAO/UNESCO/WHO/IAEA/ United Nation/UNEP, and have a key role in the assessment of marine pollution. They define marine pollution as "the introduction by man, directly or indirectly, of substances or energy into the marine environment (including estuaries) resulting in such deleterious effects as harm to living resources, hindrance to marine activities, including fishing, impairment of quality for use of sea water and reduction of amenities." (GESAMP, 1990) The focus is then on human rather than natural inputs to the sea, and on the damaging effects of wastes. Pollution is then, in practical terms, an example of a set of human interests. Things that we do without thinking much about the environment. Clark provided a set of human interests that have contributed to pollution.

Coming into conflict with human interests, we have: While our coast obviously hurts of marine pollution, no one ever thinks about the effect on the open ocean, which is obviously connected. "The input of toxic chemicals from atmospheric transport and deposition, as well as from shipping operation beyond the continental shelf, can adversely affect all open waters. Contaminant inputs from all atmospheric fallout alone can be delineated in all components of the marine environment-seawater, sediments, and biota. However, because of the great volumes of all the oceans (137 x 10 km3) and their great dilution capacity, the concentrations of these contaminant inputs usually are insufficient to cause detectable problems in deep sea environments." (Kennish, 1997) It could very well be true that we might not be able to find many contaminants in the immensity of the open ocean. "From a strictly biological point of view, even if toxic contaminants do cause death of some plants and animals in the natural environment, this is usually of less consequence, than if the deaths result in a change in the population as a whole. Most marine animals reproduce on a colossal scale and the overwhelming majority of offspring die prematurely in the natural course of events." (Clark, et al. 1997) However, the inland regions, shallow estuaries and marine waters continue to have a major problem with pollution. The two major sources of pollutants affecting our coast are point and non-point sources.


Point sources of pollution are basically the areas emitting pollutants that we know about and can regulate, such as an industrial site, or a large registered feedlot with a specific point of discharge. Filthy discharge of this kind is no longer the threat to coastal waterways as it was in decades past. Not only has point source pollution been targeted by the 1972 Clean Water Act, but because itís source is usually easy to find, and cleaning it up is a straightforward endeavor. (Coombe, 1996)


Non-point sources of pollution become a little more tricky, as they arenít major sources. Rather they constitute several different source polluters, which are harder to catch, and penalize. Imagine the difficulty in regulating the use of fertilizers or pesticides on homeowners lawns and gardens. This would almost be impossible, unless we just stopped selling those products for the use of more natural control techniques. However, sometimes these techniques arenít as effective as the dangerous ones, and people wouldnít use them.

Ultimately, the non-point source polluters cause a greater damage to the environment. An official definition used for several years in Kansas has been: Pollutants from as a source that is not required to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit (NPDESP). NPDESP permits are required for cities, industries, storm water runoff from cities over 100, 000 population, storm water runoff from certain industries and animals feedlots with more than 1000 animal units. Everything left over is non point pollution source. (http://www.cjnetworks .com/~sccdistrict/nps.htm) Areas of non-point source pollution include air, water, and soil. Air pollution consists of gases and suspended particles. Aerosol cans (not so much anymore), factories, and especially cars are all contributors to air pollution. Soil pollution, involving contaminated water, chemicals, and solid waste and debris (landfills). Finally, there is water pollution which includes sewage, chemicals, sediments, and heat (from power plants). The potential for contamination of aquatic ecosystems by organic materials derived from energy-related processes has prompted concern about human health hazards from aquatic food chains. (Dorigan & Harrison, 1987) While we are talking about runoff, there are five prominent components of runoff pointed out to us by Coombe (1996):

Sediment clouds the water, taking the light away from underwater vegetation which depend on light to carry out photosynthesis. Sediment can blanket the bottom, smothering fish-spawning habitat and carrying toxins when they wash into waterways.

Nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorous, which are both vital to the plants, can also have damaging effects upon the ecosystem. In a process called eutrophication, these two nutrients can "suck the life" out of a healthy estuary. They stimulate bursts of algal growth called blooms, and this in turn blocks the light needed by the bottom vegetation. Once the algae die, the bacteria take up most of the waters oxygen in the processes of breaking down the dead algae.

Pathogens are essentially disease causing bacteria and viruses that find their way into the water from leaky sewers and septic systems, untreated boat-bilge, and animal feces. When you see beaches with "no swimming" signs posted, this is generally due to the heightened pathogen counts in the water.

Toxins are household cleaners, paints, solvents, etc. Because the residential septic systems and sewage-treatment plants are geared towards the removal of more organic matter, and not these toxins, many of these are able to move right through the system. This could actually be considered a point-source of pollution, but nonetheless, still very important.

The last component of runoff, and probably one of the most aesthetically offensive is debris. This includes biological debris, such as wood, that it the most obvious polluter of our coast. Not only is it unpleasant to look at and step on when you walk along the coast, decaying organic matter steals much oxygen from the water, just as with the nutrients. Non-degradable debris would include such things as straws and six-pack rings that we have all heard horror stories of. These are entangled or ingested by animals by tens of thousands each year.

While it may be hard to do an analysis of the chemicals dissolved in the water, plastics and many other physical objects can be taken into consideration. These being the materials washing up on the beach in the greatest numbers. Ridding of these various forms of marine trash will help prevent spread of disease and sickness to human, as well as animal populations. By looking at the constitute pollutants along the coast, we should be able to pin-point these sources of pollution. Once environmental causes of ocean pollutants are discovered, prevention and reduction of ocean pollution from land, ships, ocean resource developments, aquaculture, fishing, and recreation can occur. (Frankel, 1995).


Each of the areas sampled (Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, and San Diego) were used in this study to show levels of pollution at different points along our Southern California coast. In an effort to achieve the best possible representation of marine trash in the environment, we took samples of the high-tide mark along the beach; this spot being the deposition point for the most trash washed up along the shore.


The method used to count up all of the trash was a square meter transect made of pvc pipe strung together. (Each piece of pvc about 49 inches long) The transect was then thrown five times at randomly chosen points along the beach, throughout the high-tidal zone. Trash was then tallied and written down. If there were too many pieces to count, I would just take a percentage estimate. This experiment was then repeated for each of the other beaches being sampled.

It should be noted that the beach cities were used as points of reference, so we would know what areas contained the most pollutants, and that are coastal areas, in fact, constitute once continuous ecosystem. However, major coastal constructions, such as reclaimations, piers, or changes in a coastal profile can strongly influence the wave and current refraction and therefore deposition of sediment. (Frankel, 1995) The following table displays the results sorted into non-degradable trash and degradable trash:

Total number of solids found: 347


When looking at all the marine trash counted on the beach, it might be helpful to categorize the pollutants. Degradable wastes constitute the greatest amount of wastes entering our coastal waters. "Wood (driftwood, dunnage, wood from deteriorating piers and ships) constitute the greatest percentage of floatable waste by both weight and volume." (Bell, et al. 1989) These degradable wastes are composed of organic material which is subject to material attack. So, then you might ask why then are they a coastal threat if they will eventually decompose? They are different from plant or animal remains, however, if the rate of input exceeds the rate of bacterial degradation, organic matter can accumulate. (Clark, et al. 1997)

The majority of trash collected in the above sample included many pieces of driftwood. Some people question whether driftwood is or isnít a form of marine trash. I believe that it is. Of course it is natural and it biodegrades, but so is paper, and we shouldnít be throwing paper on the beach.

After rains in Southern California, runoff brings trash to the beach.

El Nino accounts for much of the wood that has washed up along the coast. Much of the wood found washed up along the shore in our survey is bamboo, most likely from Mexico. El Nino is the a big contributor to debris, and although this is a natural occurrence, it still takes away from the aesthetic appearance of the beach.

Fertilizers from agricultural sources, containing nitrates and phosphates, enhance phytoplankton production and can lead to anoxic conditions. (Clark, et al. 1997) Water diverted for irrigation purposes is often tainted with fertilizers and chemicals before it reenters the drainage system. I find it ironic that the use of DDT was suspended in the US in the early 1970ís, however 50 million pounds per year are still manufactured here for export. We ridicule the use of many of these pesticides, yet we import fruits and vegetables grown in pesticide from Mexico, which eventually drain back into our groundwater. (Frankel, 1995)

Dissipating wastes are not as damaging, as they loose their damaging properties once they enter the water. These are such things as heat, acids and alkalis, and cyanide from metal industries. (Clark, et al. 1997) Although the pollution may not be visible, it doesnít mean that pollutants are not damaging to the inhabitants of the coast, both human and animal.

Finally, Solid wastes are increasing problem, and constitute much of the research with beach surveys, as our own. These include litter, much of them plastics (there were many plastic drinking straws found in our survey), polyethene containers, and nylon materials (such as fishing nets). (Clark, et al. 1997) Consider that in 1960, approximately 6.3 billion pounds of plastics were produced in the United States. By 1993, that number had soared to 68.8 billion. (Coombe, 1996)

Plastics and other discarded materials are consumed by fish and marine mammals. The drift net fishery in the North Pacific sets out 30-40,000 km of nets each day, with an estimated daily loss rate of 20% of these each year. (Daly, 1995) The effects of incidences like these on the marine and fish population are devastating, as well as long lasting.

Unfortunate Seal death from plastic strap

These curious, playful seals often play with fragments of plastic netting or straps, such as the one pictured left. These plastics can constrict the seals movements, thus killing them through starvation, exhaustion, or infection from the deep wounds caused by the tightening plastic.

Given the prevalence of all the marine trash that we find washed up along our coast, itís no wonder that many animals come into contact with these plastics. Contrary to what many people think, cigarette butts are not biodegradable: The filters are made from a form of plastic called cellulose acetate. (Coombe, 1996) Whether it be their careless attitude for the environment or just that it is considered cool, to throw a lit cigarette on the ground is hazardous to the coastal regions. Cigarettes were definitely a large portion of the trash counted. Since the first U.S. National Coastal Cleanup, plastics have hovered at around 60 percent of all debris found, however cigarettes were not part of this number. (Coombe, 1996) In this instance, I donít believe that they were accounting for driftwood, which was definitely a majority of the trash counted.

While fisheries arenít a land based source of pollution, they are a major polluter of our oceans and can be deleterious to our ecosystem. First off, there are innumerable benthic communities residing on the sea floor effected by fisheries. There are many kinds of trawls, dredges, and traps that lie, or prowl, on the sea floor. The effects placed on the sea floor include impacts such as scraping and ploughing the bottom to substratum depths of 30 cm as well as resuspending the sediment, which could block out much needed light and destroy many organisms. (Riemann and Hoffmann, 1991; Jones, 1992) As technology begins to improve and the costs to fisheries Bering to decline, these deep-sea fish are only going to face additional hardships. These fish communities are characterized by their slow growth rate, long life, delayed age of maturation, and low adult mortality. All of these are vulnerable to fishing. (Messieh et al., 1991; Thiel and Schriever, 1990) The ICES (Anon, 1991 b.) report considered that a common fishing policies Total Allowable Catch (TAC) approach wasnít suitable because they didnít regulate the amount of fish that was discarded. It also contributed to the decline of fish populations, as it takes fish decades to recover with their low reproduction rates and delayed age of maturity. Bycatch is a big problem inflicted by the fisheries. Bycatch is the unintended catch of animals during fishing operations and is a result of indiscriminate fishing equipment and destructive fishing practices. Dayton et al (1995) states that large amounts of biomass is discarded; this affects the marine ecosystem in much the same way that organic pollution from human activities has deleterious effects.

Being able to go out and count up the trash, pin-pointing the majority of trash as plastics, straws, and cigarette butts tells us an important thing about the frequent polluters. Those that go to the beach for leisure, including tourists. So then why would they pollute a place where they hang out all the time? You wouldnít litter your own bedroom. Our problem today isnít the point sources of pollution, we already know those and can regulate them. Our problem becomes one of stopping the non-point sources. These smokers throwing cigarettes and small drinking straws on the ground, and these residents dumping oil into storm drains. The fact that we are in the midst of El Nino season only means that there is a greater amount of water flowing out of our drainageís into the ocean, a greater flush rate, and therefore a greater amount of pollution.

Everyone can help pick up trash

You might have heard the statement that a glass can be half full, or half empty. Well, the human species may be half way to ruining our planet - or half way to harnessing its rich resources. The two positions hinge on conflicting expectations of the exact same conditions:

The fact of the matter is that a sustainable society is technically and economically possible. The United States is one of the richest nations in the world, and yet we still have to walk amongst rubbish washed up on shore. We are approaching the end of the twentieth century, and it is apparent that human activity is changing the environment for the worse. Extensive resource use, energy inefficient lifestyles, industry, and the pursuit of economic growth are all contributing factors to the degradation of the environment, within and across state boarders. (Elliot, 1998)

Suggestions an individual or a company can do in response to some of these problems:

Surfrider Education program in a Corona Del Mar high school class
Some of these might include introducing predators, such as ladybugs or praying mantis, into their gardens. Compost is a natural fertilizer that they can use, or their are also commercially available organic products. And finally, I now possess a deep vengeance against all smokers who flick their non-biodegradable cancer sticks. So make sure I am not around when you guys start flick your smokes, or else!


Coastal waters have a special role in terms of our economy and the environment. Harbors must be situated along the coast, so that ships are navigated into through strong wind-driven currents and tides. The coastal environment is important, not only for recreation use, but fisheries are highly dependent on being situated along the water. It is then each of our responsibility to sustain our ocean environment, and find that balance needed so that humans can coexist with the environment. Daily actions have a profound ecological impact. It is nonsense to say that individuals canít make a difference, they can.

Literature Cited

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Brown, V., Smith, D., Wiseman, R, Handmer, J. Risks and Opportunities: Managing Environmental Conflict and Change, Earthscan Publications, Ltd. 1995

Dayton, P., Thrush, S., Agardy, M., and Hoffman, R. Viewpoint: Environmental Effects of Marine Fishing, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 1995.

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Hepple, P. Pollution Prevention, Institute of Petroleum, 1968.

Kennish, M. Estuarine and Marine Pollution, CRC Press, 1997.

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