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Plastic, cigarette butts and weird stuff: 74,000 lbs of trash removed in annual cleanup day

Litter met its match, at least for one day, as more than 5,500 volunteers picked up trash at 75 locations around San Diego County Saturday.

It was the annual Creek to Bay Cleanup, started 20 years ago and timed to Earth Day. People went out with grabber tools and filled plastic buckets from Oceanside to San Ysidro, clearing not just streams and beaches, but canyons, lakes, nature preserves and sloughs.

By 3 p.m., they had added more than 74,000 pounds of debris to the 2.7 million tons of litter that has been collected since 2002, according to I Love a Clean San Diego, the nonprofit organization that founded the event.

Saturday’s roll call of refuse was dominated by plastics of all kinds and cigarette butts. Among the more unusual finds: a baby stroller, an Easter bunny outfit and an ashtray printed with this message: “Do not litter.”

The largest group of volunteers, about 200, gathered at Gompers Neighborhood Park in San Diego’s Chollas View neighborhood, spreading out through its 4.73 acres and onto the surrounding streets, alleys and open spaces for about three hours of garbage removal.

“It’s a great way to give back to the community,” said Tanisha Denham, 38. “Like a lot of people, we’re concerned about climate change and doing what we can for the environment.”

Volunteers taking part in the 20th annual Creek to Bay Cleanup gear up with gloves, buckets and trash grabbers before heading out into the community near Gompers Neighborhood Park.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

She was there with her sister, Latisha Denham, 37, who welcomed the chance to be out with a group again after two years of activities like this one being restricted by the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s been hard on everyone in San Diego, so this is nice,” she said. “And we’re doing what we can to prevent pollution.”

The Denhams both work as analysts, Tanisha with San Diego Gas & Electric and Latisha with the state’s social services department. They grew up nearby, went to Lincoln High School and still live in the area. Keeping Gompers park clean felt personal to them.

They also embraced the central message of the cleanup, which is that trash dumped just about anywhere in the county may eventually make its way to the ocean. I Love a Clean San Diego estimates that about 80 percent of coastal pollution starts inland, migrating westward through the region’s 11 distinct watersheds.

“I had no idea,” Tanisha Denham said.

Jesus Torres came to Gompers from Rancho Peñasquitos, so his interest was less about the neighborhood and more about community service, he said. (It also wasn’t much of a day off; he works for Republic Services, which collects garbage in San Diego County and was among numerous local companies, civic groups and college fraternal organizations with “teams” volunteering at cleanups around the county.)

Chris Rice from La Jolla collected a discarded automobile tire and a portion of a mattress box spring

Chris Rice from La Jolla collected a discarded automobile tire and a portion of a mattress box spring near Gompers Neighborhood Park on Saturday.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Torres brought his daughter Annalea, 5, and son Maddox, who is almost 2, to help out. Annalea has been learning in school about Earth Day, which was Friday, and thought this would be a good practical addition to the classroom lessons.

This was the family’s first time participating, but maybe not the last, judging from the zeal with which the kids went after discarded pieces of this and that. Both wielded size-appropriate trash picker-uppers — barbecue tongs.

Several elected officials greeted the volunteers at Gompers, including Mayor Todd Gloria and City Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, whose district includes the park.

“We are fortunate to live in an area as beautiful as San Diego,” Gloria said. “It’s on all us to keep it clean.”

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