In 1986, an Ocean Conservancy staffer was walking along the beach near Galveston, Texas, when she was taken aback by the amount of trash littering the coast. Determined to make a difference, she mobilized roughly 2,800 volunteers to pick up 124 tons of trash from a 122-mile stretch of shoreline.

“And the movement quickly spread from there,” says Amelia Montjoy, vice president of resource development, Ocean Conservancy.

In 1989, the cleanup went international with events in Canada and Mexico, and continues to gain momentum year after year. In 2012, more than 500,000 volunteers picked up 10 million pounds of trash – the equivalent weight of 10 Boeing 747 jumbo jets – from beaches, lakes and waterways as part of the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC).

Coca-Cola has been there nearly every step of the way, having supported the ICC and Ocean Conservancy since 1995 through educational outreach, community engagement, research, industry collaborations, marketing and more. Coke volunteers also play an active role in the cleanups. Last year, more than 24,000 Coca-Cola employees rolled up their sleeves and helped clean up 1,300 miles of coastline in 27 countries.

The ICC inspires action to help remove trash and debris from waterways and change behaviors that allowed these items to reach the water in the first place. Ocean Conservancy stresses the notion that what falls from human hands can be prevented by human hands – and recorded for the benefit of the planet. That’s why volunteers serve as “citizen scientists” by cataloging every item collected. Ocean Conservancy then uses the data to produce the world’s only annual country-by-country, state-by-state index of the marine debris problem. They also compile an annual top 10 list of items collected.

The 28th annual International Coastal Cleanup is set for Sept. 21, 2013. We spoke with Montjoy to learn more about what is now the largest global volunteer effort on behalf of ocean health:

Every year, the total amount of trash collected seems to increase. Is the problem getting worse, or is the ICC movement simply growing?

It’s a conundrum. We want to pick up more trash every year, because that shows the movement is growing. On the other hand, we’d love to have a year where there is no trash at all to pick up. That would signal victory. While we don’t know the answer to your question, what we do know is that we could send volunteers out around the globe every day of the year and there would be debris to remove – either items overlooked from the day before or trash that has washed up or been dropped over the last 24 hours. We’re not solving the problem by having an event once a year, but we do believe that involving more people in the movement will make a dent in this pervasive issue – which threatens the survival of marine species and human health, and has a profoundly negative effect on coastal communities. That’s the only way we’ll keep the numbers from continuing to rise.

Every year, volunteers picked up everyday items like cigarette butts and food wrappers. What are some of the strangest finds?

Washing machines, furniture, tires, abandoned fishing gear, toilet seats, baby carriages… you name it. Our volunteers removed 117 mattresses last year, and in San Diego alone we retrieved more than 30 shopping carts. We find at least one proverbial kitchen sink every year. Our former president found one once and said, “Now we can’t say we pick up ‘everything but the kitchen sink…’ we have to say ‘everything including the kitchen sink.’”

What are some of the less-obvious ways trash in our waterways affects society?

There are enormous “hidden” costs associated with marine debris – from technology, manpower, waste removal, community recycling and recovery efforts, and more – particularly in coastal communities. All of these costs have to be passed on to the community. For example, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and Flood Control District spends $18 million each year on street sweeping, catch basin cleanouts and prevention and awareness efforts to keep trash from washing into the ocean.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of volunteers gather to participate in ICC events. Many walk or hit the water in a boat, and others even don scuba gear for a 'deeper dive' into the issue. What are some of the more creative examples of recent cleanups?

Over the past year, we’ve participated in several helicopter-dependent cleanups in parts of Alaska where there are no roads. Our marine debris specialist recently went on an expedition on an old fishing boat where they used a crane to haul debris from the shores of pristine, untouched environments in Alaska where tsunami debris had washed up. And last year, our Bangladesh cleanup coordinator came to the U.S., hopped on a bicycle built for two and completed a 3,500-mile journey across the country to raise awareness about marine debris and recruit volunteers. We also have stories from all over the world of people who collect debris and turn what they find into art projects. Many are beautiful, and others are more “trashy” looking, I guess you’d say! There are many ways to get creative about garbage!

Coca-Cola has supported the International Coastal Cleanup for the past 18 years. What value does Coke’s involvement bring to the event and your broader mission?

Coca-Cola has helped us move from a mom-and-pop event to what is now a global movement to eradicate trash – not only on beaches, but in all waterways. We view this as a true strategic partnership; not only for the cleanup, but for our entire Trash Free Seas program. The fact that Coke does business all over the world is huge, as are their efforts to promote the ICC as a volunteer event with employees around the globe.

What steps can the average person – including those of us who are ‘landlocked’ – take to join the Trash-Free Seas movement?

There are very few people in the world without access to a waterway nearby – whether it’s an arroyo in New Mexico or a small stream in Georgia. But everyone – city dwellers included – can do their part to address the issue. Right here in Washington, D.C., signs on street sewers read, “This goes into the Chesapeake Bay.” We need to build awareness of the fact that trash is a human problem. It doesn’t fall from the sky; it falls from human hands, either blatantly or inadvertently. Nobody is immune to this problem, and everyone can have a hand in helping to alleviate it. Just as everyone can save energy by turning off the lights when they leave a room, everyone can pick up trash or change their behavior as it relates to disposing of trash and purchasing items that become trash.

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