Land’s End: Trash Talk

Your butts on our beaches, and other lapses of public civility

There have been times when our children have thanked us for letting them grow up by the ocean, but April has never brought out much gratitude in them.

Never mind that it’s the perfect time to be a kid at the beach, in theory—warm, but not too warm, brisk, but not too brisk. Lively with tourists, but not so lively that Coast Highway traffic keeps you from getting to Forever 21 at Fashion Island.

But April means Earth Day, which to an adult is the perfect holiday to feel virtuous and vaguely celebratory with almost no extra effort. To teens in coastal Orange County, though, Earth Day means the “opportunity” to fulfill a high school community service requirement by plucking trash from the sand.

“There’s nothing like a beach cleanup to make you hate people,” one of my daughters announced one year. This was, as I recall, a freshman beach cleanup, before the older kids taught her how to be seen for an hour or two before playing hooky and cleverly ducking into a juice bar.

Some might digress here about raising a child among spoiled, entitled beach kids. But I could see her point. She had just risen at dawn to spend an entire morning picking up other people’s wet trash. Soaked plastic bags. Bits of plastic foam in seaweed. Subway wrappers. Used condoms. Wet socks. Dirty diapers.

“Did you know that when sand gets into a half-filled Slurpee cup, it looks exactly like vomit?” she asked.

I did not. Nor did I know—at least then—that cigarette butts are second in abundance only to grains of sand on Southern California’s beaches, so innumerable that a person could gather them all weekend and have nothing to show for it but fingers that smell like stale, wet cigarettes. This, even though smoking is banned on most Orange County beaches, and the national smoking rate among adults has dropped to about 18 percent.

Where do these beach-bum litterbugs come from? And where do they get the nerve to throw their garbage around? Because in this day and age, that takes chutzpah. If you don’t believe it, try dropping a candy wrapper on the sidewalk. Chances are, you’ll feel so ashamed that you’ll go back and pick it up.

When I was a kid in the ’60s, littering was scarcely even a concept—people burned trash in their backyards, threw it out of car windows, left it fluttering around picnic tables in parks. We didn’t know better. But we’ve had decades of public education since then, and beach cleanups have evolved into a year-round effort. Though those efforts peak around Earth Day, with youth groups sometimes vying to clean the same beach, I’ve seen T-shirted people—mostly kids—toiling away in every season.

So who doesn’t know by now that as surely as the river flows to the sea, the trash in your storm drain will end up next to your beach towel? That decent people don’t smoke on the sand and then leave their butts for someone else to pick up? That it’s gross to use plastic foam cups and single-use plastic bags?

I’ve concluded that some people are spoiled and entitled. Which people? I’m not sure. But I don’t think they include the trash-picking beach teens of Orange County, who, I’m told, are grateful for their addresses—11 months of the year.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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