La Jolla seniors join effort to collect beach trash

Billie Sieg, a 91-year-old retired stenographer from Oklahoma who now resides at Casa de Mañana, does her part to make La Jolla, and the oceans, cleaner.

More than 30 volunteers from Casa de Mañana — half of whom were residents, half employees — picked up trash left south of Seal Rock on Friday, Feb. 22. It was part of the retirement community’s first joint cleanup effort with the San Diego Coastkeeper outreach organization.

“We brought Coastkeeper in last year to talk about what they do,” said Casa de Mañana executive director Justin Weber. “Beach cleanups came up and I told them we had been wanting to organize an official one for some time.”

Some staff and residents come out on a daily basis to pick up trash, Weber explained, “but this is the first time we’re doing it in an official way.”

At 3:30 p.m., the Casa crew gathered in front of the Children’s Pool flag and set out with trash-grabbers, rubber gloves and plastic trash bags provided by Coastkeeper. (The bags were not biodegradable but, according to Coastkeeper, are provided by a local apparel company and reused several times each.)

“Sometimes I get so upset about the plastic situation killing our animals,” said 91-year-old Casa resident Billie Sieg. “They find whales full of trash and it’s terrible because we are so accustomed to using plastic.”

Like most residents, Sieg chose not to descend the stairs to the beach, keeping to the bluff and trails above. Still, all found the garbage-picking plentiful. According to Coastkeeper, 50 pounds was collected during the 90-minute event.

“Actually, there’s a little more than I thought there would be,” said resident Ellen Mason, 76, as she opened her bag to reveal an empty Lunchables container, several cigarette butts and a plastic hygiene product.

“The beach shouldn’t be sending all this crap out to have the fish eat and die or what have you,” said Dudley Hartong, 88, as he glanced inside Mason’s bag.

Coastkeeper conducts twice-monthly cleanups at different spots along the San Diego coast. In 2018, according to the organization, 8,864 of its volunteers removed 164,868 items of trash (weighing 11,530 pounds) during these events.

The most common item found by the Casa crew lines up with the most common one found by San Diego Coastkeeper last year: cigarette butts.

“They’re not only a litter issue, but a water-quality issue,” said San Diego Coastkeeper programs director Kristin Kuhn. “Once the plastic filters get out into the water, they reverse-leach a lot the material trapped inside them.”

Research conducted in 2009 by San Diego State University Public Health professor Rick Gersberg showed that one cigarette butt in a liter of seawater will kill all fish in that water within 96 hours.

When one Casa resident wondered why people should enjoy smoking so much on the beach in this day and age, it was explained to her that these butts made their way there through storm drains after the recent rainstorms. “If you throw a cigarette butt out of your car three miles from the coast,” Kuhn said, “it gets here.”

Weber said he hopes to make the joint cleanup a regular event.

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