Beaches are generally our escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. What could be better for the soul than some fresh air, crisp waves, and sand between your toes?

But it’s not just sand beneath our feet: instead, we’re finding plastic wrappers, leftover food, disposable bags, and more strewn across our iconic beaches. And, trash on our beaches isn’t just an eyesore — it’s dangerous. That clutter gets swept out to sea, where marine animals can get caught on (or even ingest) that plastic. 

How Trash Impacts San Diego Beaches

San Diego is host to gorgeous beaches, and in some ways, that’s part of the problem. Our easy-to-access beaches allow plentiful visitors to the beach; More beachgoers mean more people and — unfortunately — more trash. 

Because our beaches are just a short distance away from the main cities, they’re also often located near waterways or runoff points. The result: all of that trash from our streets gets swept towards the beaches, which only compounds the problem. 

Why Is Trash A Problem?

Trash on our beaches is more than an eyesore; it’s a threat in plain sight. Some of these items can take literal years to decompose, especially with the increase of single-use plastics. (A single plastic bottle can take over 500 years to break down entirely.)

When those items linger, the impacts are nearly never-ending. We’ll often see adverse effects on the wildlife, the local recreation, and the community health.


Trash has disastrous impacts on the local wildlife, such as:

Accidental ingestion. Plastic bags are often confused for jellyfish, and when consumed, can block the digestive tracts of fish, turtles, and birds.

Starvation. When animals consume lost trash items, their stomachs can get clogged with plastic, leaving no room for actual food. As a result, they’re unable to get sufficient nutrients and will eventually starve to death.

Impaired mobility. Can you imagine trying to navigate through life with a six-foot plastic rope tied to your ankle? For some critters, discarded plastic results in precisely that. Pieces of trash can wrap around fins, flippers, and wings alike, cutting off circulation and making it difficult to outrun predators. What’s more, it can also make it nearly impossible to catch prey for themselves and their young.

Injuries and infection. Recently, we’ve seen what plastic straws can do to foraging sea turtles. Other trash can cause similar injuries. When these items lacerate or wrap around our local wildlife, it can lead to deep, painful wounds and potential infections.

Injured animals aren’t just heartbreaking to witness: they can wreak havoc on the ecosystem. Endangered populations already struggle to find enough food, and we’ve seen the devastating effects when whales wash ashore with stomachs full of plastic. 


We often flee to the beaches to escape our stressful lives, but we now have much more limited access. Severe trash build-up can lead to unsanitary conditions, resulting in statewide beach closures. Local governments and non-profits then have to stretch their already strained budgets to arrange a clean-up, which takes precious time and resources. 

Even when beaches remain open, it can be difficult to properly enjoy a swim alongside used plastic containers and discarded fishing lines.

Community Health

Communities don’t just lose tourism appeal and family-day activities when beaches have a trash problem. These beaches also have a tangible impact on our communities’ health. 

For one, unsanitary conditions can lead to pest problems (and with that, an increased risk of disease). These impacts can also be widespread: for example, the increase of microplastics in our seafood that are nearly impossible to filter out. 

People need a connection to nature. It gives us a sense of peace, and many of us rely on our beaches for relaxation and stress reduction. It’s crucial for our mental health to have access to scenic areas like these, and time spent at a clean beach is infinitely better than time spent at a filthy beach.

What Kind of Trash Is Found Most Often On San Diego Beaches?

Our San Diego beaches are just as prone to trash overload as any other populated shoreline. Local non-profits work diligently to keep our beaches clean, and in the past year alone, they’ve cleared over 6,400 pounds of trash.

Some of the most commonly found trash items include:

  • Cigarette butts (the number one thing found on the beach in San Diego; over 10,000 butts were picked up by volunteers last year.)
  • Plastic grocery bags
  • Food items
  • Foam takeout containers
  • Straws
  • Cans
  • Bottle Caps
  • Paper plates
  • Plastic utensils
  • Fishing gear (nets, line, buoys, traps)
  • Diapers
  • Syringes

And it doesn’t stop there. From the tiniest pieces of glass to full-size appliances (like washing machines and refrigerators), you almost never know what you’ll find discarded on the beach in San Diego. 

What Can We Do About It?

The trash problem on our beaches is unpleasant, frustrating, and persistent. So what can we do to be part of the solution?

Pack in, pack out. This idiom usually applies to camping, but the same concept applies to our beach trips as well. Try to leave the beach better than you found it. Over the last ten years, popular beaches throughout the county have posted “pack in, pack out” signs, and to make it easier for visitors to comply, they’ve added more trash bins and recycling bins. Often a simple reminder prompts individuals to do their part. 

Local beach clean-ups. For beaches not maintained by the city, you’ll often find local volunteer organizations that regularly clean the beaches. 

Awareness. Did you ever learn to cut the plastic rings from your soda packaging when you were done with them? This idea came from a campaign to reduce the impact plastic rings had on local seabirds and other wildlife, and it shows the power of a good awareness campaign. Sometimes, a simple action makes all the difference, and once ingrained into the common knowledge, it practically becomes second nature. Local organizations like Surfrider Foundation San Diego Chapter and the Pacific Beach Coalition make it their mission to spread awareness of the trash problem and disseminate ways to reduce beach refuse. 

Tracking programs. Have you ever heard, “what gets measured, gets managed”? Peter Drucker was talking more about business ventures, but the same principle applies here. To help with awareness efforts, organizations like the Pacific Beach Coalition have created tracking programs like the Clean Swell Tracking App. The concept is simple: during clean-ups, organizations report what trash items they found, how many, and where. 

This helps identify trends that come in handy for local officials to respond with a solution. (For example, cigarette butts are the most regularly found item during clean-ups in San Diego, which could be met with more ashtrays or even “No Smoking” signs where applicable). 

The data alone can’t solve the problem, but by reporting the numbers, we can start to get an idea of the magnitude of the problem and where it may be best to start. 

How To Get Involved

The trash problem is a big problem for San Diego beaches, both in scale and importance. However, it’s not an impossible one. 

Every effort makes a difference! Here are just a few ways to get involved. 

  • Volunteer for a local beach clean-up in your area. 
  • Encourage personal responsibility in your travel group; friends don’t let friends litter on our beaches.
  • Support local change on a policy level regarding limiting single-use plastics, recycling programs, etc.
  • Donate to local conservation efforts to support remediation and wildlife rescue.