Volunteering for a Beach Cleanup

On Saturday morning, I woke up too early for the weekend (and far too early after going to a formal event the night before) to hop in a car with one of my co-workers and a few friends to drive out to Half Moon Bay. The Stanford Alumni Association had their Day of Service, and our operations manager Sam had arranged for us to cleanup the beach. I had actually never been to Half Moon Bay, despite having heard nice things about it. As we drove up 280 and across on 92, we drifted away from the corridor of towns on the inner peninsula and wound through the scenic hills out towards the ocean.

We arrived late, though the event was organized for us to show up whenever we wanted. Around 9:30, we walked up to the booth in the parking lot where a chipper guy with a few bad jokes had us sign waivers and gave us bags. Without much direction, we walked out along the beach with our eyes glued to the ground for anything trash-like.

Early on, it was difficult. Dried grass and seaweed can look like loose rope or threads–probably because rope is made of similar material. Every once in awhile, we would end up in a circle around an unknown object and argue about whether it was trash or not. On the sandy beach, the most common trash we found were plastic bags, which were often difficult to dig up because the tides had often buried the bag under several layers of sand.

The path led us out to the jetty, and we walked over the rocks to continue our cleanup. Between the rocks, we found the remains of various fishing trips and parties. We mostly found empty beer bottles and wrappers of various snacks from Safeway, but we also found wrappers for various types of bait. Many of the items were wedged deep into the jetty, and I appreciated having work gloves to reach into the gaps. We exchanged a few words with other volunteers and passed by others who were either fishing or trying to catch crabs.

When I had filled my bag, I turned back around and skipped back along the jetty. Despite little time spent hiking or doing other similar outdoorsy activities, I like to think I’m fairly agile and can move quickly over rough terrain. There waiting for me was the rest of my party, who appeared to have filled their bags far more quickly than I had. We walked back along the path parallel to the beach making crab jokes and handed in our bags of trash at the booth. After a quick picture so that the organizers could demonstrate alumni participation, we headed home and arrived before I would have woken up on my own.

As I walked along the beach that morning with a bunch of friends, I joked that we weren’t suffering enough for our effort to constitute volunteer work. I had always assumed that some part of volunteering was inherently unpleasant, or else we would be doing it “for fun”, not “for volunteering”. Instead, people are driven to volunteer by some sense of guilt. Although we could spend the time watching TV or sleeping in, we feel like we should be contributing to the community by taking up that task that no one else wants to do but needs to get done. Well, at least I personally volunteered out of guilt.

But there wasn’t too much suffering as we enjoyed our long walk on the beach, occasionally stuffing things into our bags. Moreover, I’m not certain that we really did anything significant in the cleanup. I made eye contact several times with the fishermen while grabbing trash, and I wonder whether they were precisely the people I was picking up after. And when they recognized that others were willing to clean up after them, maybe it made it that much easier for them not to pick up after themselves.

I’m certain that these facts aren’t lost on the Surfrider Foundation, who organized the event. To, the event seemed to be less about the cleanup itself and more about awareness. It took my volunteering guilt to finally go out to Half Moon Bay, which I found to be worth a return visit. Picking up trash probably didn’t significantly change the quality of the beach area, but it has made me think much more about the preservation of the area where I frankly did have a lot of fun. It only took a few washed up plastic bags for me to think about those poor marine animals being caught in our trash and consider how I might alter my behavior to avoid contributing to the problem.

Maybe most individual people can’t make a tremendous impact through volunteer work, but volunteering might have a tremendous impact on an individual person. And for one Saturday morning otherwise spent sleeping in, I think that’s plenty.

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