Photo by Morgan Grana

Last year on Earth Day, 300 volunteers working with Save Our Shores (SOS) picked up 2,400 pounds of trash from two beaches in Santa Cruz County. This year, they plan to top that.

Save Our Shores is a Santa Cruz nonprofit organization that sponsors beach and river cleanups and promotes awareness of issues related to the marine environment. This year, they will help organize the annual Earth Day Festival on April 21 at San Lorenzo Park, along with Ecology Action and the city of Santa Cruz.

Since the organization’s founding in 1978, it has helped to establish the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and have held thousands of cleanups in cities, rivers and beaches. In 2011, SOS sponsored over 220 beach cleanups and over 50 urban cleanups, program coordinator Andrew Hoeksema said.

“I tell people that SOS focuses on the human aspect of the ocean,” Hoeksema said. “Because we don’t go out and save marine mammals or birds or anything like that, we actually talk to humans and say, ‘Hey, you can do these small things in your life that will help protect the ocean.’”

This Earth Day, SOS plans to have the largest cleanup effort ever held in the Monterey Bay Area. Cleanup sites include San Lorenzo Park, where the Earth Day festival will be held, as well as Cowell, Manresa and Del Monte beaches. They expect close to 100 volunteers at each location, and these will be joined by three private groups working with SOS on a more extensive cleanup of the San Lorenzo, bringing the expected turnout to nearly 500 volunteers.

“As far as coastal cleanups, this is definitely the biggest we’ve done so far,” said Sarah Maxwell, a fourth-year ecology and evolutionary biology major who just completed SOS’s eight week training course for volunteer coordinators.

Since SOS is composed of only five full-time staff members, the organization relies on volunteer coordinators like
Maxwell to organize large cleanups. Along with other graduates of the training course, Maxwell will be responsible for directing the hundreds of volunteers that turn up on Earth Day and making sure that their time is put to the best use possible.

“Basically, we’ll give them a short educational presentation about plastics and the local beach environment and how they can help. After that, we just make sure they’re collecting what they should be collecting,” said Michael Ray, a fourth-year environmental science and economics major who recently completed SOS’s training program.

According to SOS’s data, the most frequently picked up item during these cleanups is cigarette butts. After that comes plastic pieces and wrappers, Styrofoam, paper pieces and fireworks — in that order. Maxwell is quick to point out that cleanups aren’t the only thing SOS is doing to protect the ocean.

“They’re doing cleanups monthly, but what’s awesome about them is that they’re also really involved in a lot of advocacy,” Maxwell said. “The executive director, Laura Kasa, was a really big player in getting the plastic bag ban going in Santa Cruz.”

The plastic bag ban in Santa Cruz County went into effect on March 20 of this year, and currently only applies to the unincorporated areas of Santa Cruz County, such as the Live Oak area and much of South County, but not in any of the cities. SOS is currently working toward extending the bag ban to those areas.

Until next weekend is over, SOS will be spending most of its time focusing on Earth Day — something Hoeksema says is just as important, but for different reasons.

“The festival itself is really a celebration,” Hoeksema said. “I think in the environmental movement people spend a lot of time talking about the bad news, and there is a lot of bad news. So I think we tend to focus on negative messages. But I really hope, even when we’re picking up trash that shouldn’t be in the ocean, that we can just celebrate the beauty of where we live.”