International Coastal Cleanup 2020 participants in Greece

More than 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year, polluting the water, endangering marine life, and littering our beaches. Our oceans are in trouble. But volunteers around the world are rallying together to clean up our coasts and waterways. For more than 35 years, Ocean Conservancy has brought together millions of volunteers from all over the world to participate in the annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC).

Events for plucking debris from waterways and shorelines take on a variety of forms. Often volunteers slather on sunscreen and work on foot. Sometimes, they paddle out on watercraft or scuba dive to retrieve trash drifting in the surf. In Oregon, a volunteer provided goats for help hauling out beach litter.

It may be hot work. And perhaps physically demanding. It’s well worthwhile and rewarding for hundreds of thousands of volunteers with a passion for healthy and pristine waterways.

International Coastal Cleanup

The ICC is an Ocean Conservancy initiative featuring a worldwide network of organizations, volunteers, and events. It rallies communities around the world to remove trash from their local beaches and waterways. In addition to organized events, it also offers opportunities and ideas for individuals who prefer to work their own way, wherever they want, with whom they want.

“We’re encouraging ocean lovers who aren’t able to join community events to connect with the ocean through small groups or even solo cleanups … No matter where you are in the world, collecting trash and recording what you find can make a huge difference for our ocean,” says Sarah Kollar, outreach manager for International Coastal Cleanup.

In 35 years of cleanups, over 16.5 million volunteers globally have collected and logged 357,102,419 items, totaling over 344 million pounds of trash, much of which are food-and-beverage-related plastics.”

International Coastal Cleanup volunteers, South Korea, 2020
International Coastal Cleanup volunteers cleaning up a beach in South Korea, 2020. Photo credit: Bada Studio

Join in the Cleanup

Organizations set their own dates for events, usually in the fall. Lots of events are slated for September 18, which is International Coastal Cleanup Day. You can find organized events by region on the interactive map.

If you would rather clean up on your own or with friends, ICC’s website offers recommendations and information.

  • Select a safe location where social distancing is easy to manage. Your location does not need to be a waterway. Perhaps a favorite park. “Trash travels, so even picking up litter off a city sidewalk can help protect wildlife and communities that depend on clean waterways,” states the Ocean Conservancy’s ICC web page.
  • Before the event, determine where you’ll responsibly dispose of the debris.
  • Gather equipment, including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, grabbers, and garbage bags. Be sure to wear closed-toe shoes and bring a reusable water bottle.
  • Download the Clean Swell® app and record the debris you pick up.
  • Dispose of litter responsibly. Don’t discard in overflowing bins where debris would potentially fly off and back into the water.
  • Afterward, remove your gloves and wash your hands and arms with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Check out the ICC’s 8 steps to safely conduct a cleanup.

Past Cleanups

The Ocean Conservancy’s website is packed with information about previous events. For example:

  • Past cleanups have yielded some odd trash items, including a plastic sword, padlock, toilet lid, ski boot, window frame, ironing board, plunger, light bulb, and golf bag as well as toothbrushes, dentures, and a garden gnome.
  • In 2019, the collected litter included 4,771,602 food wrappers and 740,290 grocery bags.
  • In 2019, 18 volunteers traveled to Augustine Island in Alaska and ferried out over 4,000 pounds of debris.
cigarette butts collected during ICC cleanup
These cigarette butts were collected during an ICC cleanup in Sardinia, Italy, in 2019. Photo credit: Clean Coast Sardinia

Among the most commonly found items littered, cigarette butts are a source of microplastic pollution, which poses health risks for marine animals and ends up in our food, drinking water, and organs.


Participants around the world applaud the international effort and provide a bit of information about projects in their regions:

  • Nature Trust of New Brunswick and their partners work at about 32 sites in and around New Brunswick, Canada, and the Bay of Fundy. Volunteers include people on foot, divers, and boaters. “We have partners who transport volunteers via boat to remote island sites,” says spokesperson Eugénie Gaujacq.
  • Jake Weinberger, the marine debris project coordinator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, is distributing used grain bags from local breweries, instead of plastic garbage bags, for an event along the Atlantic Ocean north of Islamorada.
  • In the island town of Punta Arena off the coast of Colombia, volunteers removing debris is part of an event. Activities include inaugurating a recycling station and a mural made with recycled plastic bottle caps and other debris from previous cleanups in the area. The beach cleanup is a joint effort between Fundación Bahía y Ecosistemas de Colombia, Ecopazifico, and Amigos del Mar.

Find more cleanup events around the world.

Florida ICC cleanup with Jake Weinberger and team
Jake Weinberger distributes old grain bags from local breweries for beach cleanups in and around Islamorada, Florida, including an upcoming ICC event in September. Photo: Jake Weinberger

Work From Home

Even if you can’t volunteer for the hands-on cleanup, you can help protect our oceans.

Featured image: International Coastal Cleanup volunteers in Greece, 2020. Photo credit: HELMEPA

By Patti Roth

Patti began her writing career as a staff writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Still based in Florida, Patti serves as editor for Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap. She regularly writes about environmental, home improvement, education, recycling, art, architecture, wildlife, travel and pet topics.