Saturday, June 30, 2007 | After growing up surfing beaches throughout Southern California, Surfrider executive committee member Ken David knows what a clean beach should look like. And every year on July 5, San Diego beaches are not the definition of clean.

Sitting at his kitchen table, David slides over a picture of a turtle. Cinching the turtle’s shell like a girdle is the plastic ring from a six-pack — an item David said fills the beaches on a regular basis.

“This turtle must have crawled through this when he was a baby and his shell just grew around it,” David said. “This is why people shouldn’t leave these things on the beach.”

Founded in 1992, the San Diego County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation is both the group’s oldest and its the largest chapter with more than 4,000 members. Every year on July 5, the foundation organizes beach cleanups throughout the county. However, in a recent interview with, David explained why litter enforcement along the San Diego coast is a 365-day a year problem.

The Surfrider Foundation is hosting a beach cleanup on July 5 on several San Diego beaches, and there are going to be a lot of people on the beaches in the coming weeks. On the morning of July 5, when you start to cleanup, what would you say is going to be the No. 1 item you see the most of lying around on the sand?

Well, that’s probably going to be cans and cups. Drink containers let’s say.

Why is that?

Well, in the city of San Diego where drinking is not allowed, you can’t drink on the boardwalk but you can drink on the beach. People are there partying all day and into the night until after the fireworks are gone and so they bring soda cans also but there are beer cans and cups.

Also, I wonder if there isn’t also a certain tie-in to the banning on kegs. Up to a couple of years ago, there were kegs allowed on the beach and, I believe in order to try and control rowdy behavior, they said no kegs. Now, people still come down with alcohol, but now they’re just bringing six packs and things like that.

So yeah, the No. 1 thing tends to be drinking containers of any type like cans, cups and also water bottles. We also pick up a lot of Styrofoam containers, barbeques and chip bags.

Do you think putting more trash cans on the beach is the answer to the trash problem?

I think it’s part of it but I don’t think it’s the complete answer. I wish it was. The only reason I say why not is unfortunately either people’s laziness or irresponsibility. I have a picture that was taken at the foot of Pacific Beach Drive last year on July 5 at 6:30 in the morning. There were trash cans out, and there was also a local community group in PB that put cardboard bins for extra trash receptacles. Those were full but there was trash beside them and there was trash everywhere lying on the beach where people had been. They didn’t even try.

I don’t know if it’s irresponsibility or getting drunk or wanting to get in the car and get home or what. So I think that more trash cans might really help, but we really have to remind people to use the trash cans and to remember why they came to the beach and what they love about the beach. I think if they came down and saw the beach like it looks that next morning on the fifth, they might not come down or enjoy it so much.

Going back to your point about how all the beaches look the day after Fourth of July, what in your opinion is the beach that is the cleanest on a consistent basis in San Diego County and why?

Well I think maybe some of the North County beaches are some of the cleanest. I think it’s just because of a little less concentration of people there. You have some beaches that are very popular like La Jolla Shores, Mission Beach, PB, and for whatever reason and with advertising, these places are very popular with residents and visitors so those get really, really congested.

It’s hard for me to say one specific beach, but I’ve noticed really the beaches in Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar tend to be less littered. Maybe it’s also because most of the people there are pure, coastal locals so maybe they have a bit more of a tie and concern for keeping it clean.

So do you think that it’s the tourists that come in that tend to kind of leave more trash behind?

I don’t really want to put all the blame on the visitors. I think when you have people come to some of the more popular, central San Diego beaches —maybe not from out of state but people who don’t live near the coast who come to the beach all the time — maybe they figure there is someone there who will clean it all up and so they don’t think it’s a problem.

It seems like people who are there all the time have a little bit more of a tie to beach and think about it a little bit more. We would welcome everyone to think that way.

Which beach is by far the dirtiest on a consistent basis taking all factors into consideration like water quality and litter?

Well that’s really a couple different things when you talk about water quality and trash. Water quality would probably be Imperial Beach and the south county beaches that are close to the Tijuana River outflow and the overall lack of sewage drainage there makes it the worse in terms of closures.

I would say in terms of trash it tends to be Mission Beach and Pacific Beach areas. Again, it really relates back to the number of people down there.

How has the smoking ban on the city of San Diego beaches helped the trash situation?

It’s helped a little bit but there really is still a lot that needs to be done. I think what would really help is a little more public notification of the ban. There was a lot of news when it first was passed, and they put some signs up but maybe they could do more.

If you go to the seawall area at Mission Beach and Pacific Beach they have the words “no alcohol” spray-painted on the wall. I think if you had something like that for the no-smoking ban it would really reinforce the issue and really enforce it.

We’re still finding cigarette butts — some of them are washing down from the rivers — but we’re also seeing some that are still evident of people smoking on the beach. In some cases what we’re seeing is people smoking at the front of the beach before they get there and so there is a large concentration of them near the front entrances. We tried to put some outdoor ash cans in places like PB and OB to help cut down on that. I think they will help, but I think more education and awareness is needed to make people more conscious about it and remember it when they go to the beach.

That relates to my next point. It seems impossible to catch everyone who breaks these rules, whether it be drinking after certain hours or on certain beaches or smoking. Do you think it can be done and are these things really enforceable?

I think it has to be a combination of law enforcement and the public. People self-policing themselves and remembering that these are the rules and this is a place we don’t drink or smoke at and it’s time to throw the beer away or throw the trash away. Also just people around them telling them that they can’t smoke there or asking them to please put it away.

So the enforcement really lies with the people and not the police?

Yeah, I think it does. Police are so thinly stretched and having to deal with other issues — even other issues on the beach — that they can’t see everything. The lifeguards job is to keep an eye on the ocean and protect people there, not to keep an eye on people smoking.

In a perfect world, what other types of items do you wish you could ban on the beach besides cigarettes?

Single-use plastic water bottles. Those are a very significant problem at the beach and in general environmentally. I’m talking about the little 12-ounce individuals. Plastic never goes away. It doesn’t biodegrade. So it’s always there and we have a lot of those things that are being found on the beach like the plastic water bottles, plastic caps, six-pack rings, and also plastic shopping bags. They’re all really bad.

What other types of littering enforcement do you think the city and the county need to get more serious about?

If there was some way to really hammer down better education and enforcement on the beach. Teach people the littering laws. I also think that the establishment of recycling bins on the beach would be good. Not just trash bins. Recycling bins. There are a few at Mission Bay. Also a great thing to see if we could get it out there is to make trash bags available to people. Big rolls of huge trash bags on the beach for people to use before they leave. A Surfrider chapter up in Malibu mounted some trash bag rolls up on the beach. … We could also have those things installed.

Kind of like the plastic bags people have up near sidewalks for people walking their dogs?

Exactly. Put up a dispenser with a bag so people can grab them and use themselves.

Do you think that San Diego is above or below the curve in terms of trash upkeep compared to other cities in California?

I’d like to think that we are doing better. We have miles and miles of beautiful coastline and people enjoying it in every way. If you factor in the tourism draw we are doing extremely well keeping things clean. I think that city leaders and the community are realizing more and more just how important it is to keep the beach clean. I think we’re ahead of the curve in some places in California but obviously there is still a lot of work to be done to really keep it clean.

— Interview by SUSAN GRANT

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