How Trash-Covered Beaches End Up Costing Everyone Money

In California, washed-up coastal garbage is having a big economic impact for Orange County, says a new report.

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Huntington Beach, California. (CK Chung/Flickr)

It's well known that garbage in the ocean is screwing with animals in any number of ways. But its nasty impact extends past the shoreline into our communities, draining beachgoers' wallets by tens of millions of dollars each summer.

That's the conclusion of a new economic report about Orange County from NOAA's Marine Debris Program and consulting firm Industrial Economics. They found that local residents' top concern when choosing a beach—right next to water quality—was the presence of washed-up debris like plastic and industrial lumber. As a result, many people choose to drive longer distances to find more pristine beaches, racking up higher expenses due to gas, tolls, parking, and lost time.

The full report illuminates just how repellent ocean trash can be:

Beach visitors are likely to be concerned about marine debris both because it poses potential physical harm due to lacerations, bacterial infections, or entanglements during swimming, and because it may detract from the perceived natural beauty of an area. In contrast to debris or litter along the roadside or in parks, there is a high potential for dermal contact with marine debris on beaches as visitors frequently go barefoot, lie directly on the sand, and dig in the sand. Furthermore, many visitors may view marine debris on the shore as an indicator of poor water quality. 

Many beaches are cleaned by raking or trash-picking volunteers. The Orange County analysis suggests that caretakers should perform these activities more often, given the large savings it bodes for locals. If the amount of trash was reduced by half, the savings to Orange County residents could add up to $67 million in the summertime, according to NOAA:

NOAA

These figures come from a mail poll of about 1,500 locals asking about their beach trips and attitudes toward marine debris. Their responses were entered into an economic model that simulated how much money they were losing bypassing local beaches in favor of others in Orange County (as well as some within driving distance in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.)

The researchers also performed site surveys to determine the beaches with the densest accumulation of debris in Southern California. Dockweller State Beach ranked first (Yelp review: "A used tampon washed up on shore. Enough said."), followed by Long and Redondo beaches. If you want to know what kind of litter the surveyors logged, random plastics and food wrappers were the most prevalent items, and then there's stuff like this:

NOAA

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