Residents Report Unprecedented Amount of Trash Washing up on Malibu Beaches

Beach trash, including used syringes, that washed up on Little Dume, Big Dume and Paradise Cove beaches recently

Malibu residents and visitors to Paradise Cove, Big Dume and Little Dume Beaches say they are horrified by the amount of trash floating in the water and washing up on the shore beginning in mid January. The trash accumulated in large piles ashore and included everything from dozens of used needles (medical waste) to a dead dog.

One local, Alexa Woodward, said she and a friend were out on the water doing some stand-up paddle boarding near Little Dume, going south toward Paradise Cove on Jan.17 when they found themselves surrounded by refuse.

“We found ourselves in the middle of ‘plastic soup’—broken down Styrofoam as far as our eyes could see, bopping like specks of snow on the water’s surface,” she described online. “It was horrifying to me to see our beautiful protected coastline like this.”

“After 10 years of sitting on the executive advisory board of the plastic pollution coalition, with over 1,100 worldwide members fighting to end the use of single-use plastics, finding myself in the midst of our very own plastic soup really hit home,” Woodward continued.  “A beautiful seal and a myriad of fish below us were swimming through this human waste. ‘Throwaway’ took on a whole new meaning for me.” 

The scene on the shore was no better as trash washed up and began accumulating. Residents posted sightings of it on social media, some saying they had never seen this much trash on a beach in Malibu. Grassroots neighborhood clean-up crews got organized and began filling up trash bags with as much debris as they could carry.

Point Dume resident Matt Rapf emailed his Malibu friends and neighbors to rally for a clean-up effort last Thursday morning, Jan. 21, and nearly 30 people showed up to help out. 

“Malibu mobilized on this,” Rapf said in a phone interview. “Everyone was enthusiastic and ready, and I was super proud of everybody.” In addition to his group, Matt noted that, “A lot of great people took it upon themselves to get out there and pick up trash on their own.”

Volunteers picked up syringes, bottles, bottlecaps and thousands of tiny pieces of polystyrene (Styrofoam), “the most laborious part of it,” according to Rapf. His wife and another volunteer took care of the dead dog that washed up. Another volunteer raked all the beached seaweed and trash into large piles to make it easier for everyone to sort through.

While Rapf’s group worked on the Zumirez-to-Big Dume portion of sand, other groups cleaned up adjacent beaches. 

At Paradise Cove, Woodward said, “We found, on the beach, entangled in seaweed, tons of single-use plastic cups and straws that did not biodegrade and tons of beverage caps and single-use tooth flossers.”

There are theories about why tons of trash came ashore at this time. Rapf and Woodward both noted the trash appeared to be “old.” 

“This was different than normal trash,” Rapf said. “And it all seemed to come from the same source—it’s not from people littering the beach. There’s a theory that there’s some kind of trash gyre out there.”

Woodward came to the same conclusion.  

“I’m afraid this is more than beachgoers—most of the stuff I picked up is old, and what I saw floating on the water seemed as though a piece of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch broke off,” Woodward noted. 

Simeon Sturges, a lifelong seaside resident and boat captain’s son, said he is very tuned-in to the winds and currents off the Malibu coast, although he is only an amateur scientist. He has his own theory about what caused the trash to pile up. When he was walking his dog along the beach, he observed the wind blowing in the trash.

“I think it was a rare south onshore wind,” he surmised. “It’s very rare to get this wind without rain, and when it happens, it blows all the debris on the ocean’s surface between here and Catalina straight onshore. There may also have been a change in the current that’s contributing.” 

Sturges pointed out that there have been large tides that may have dislodged debris buried in the beach sand and that Malibu is relatively close to international shipping lanes, with ships that throw trash into the ocean. 

Speaking to The Malibu Times, Tom Ford, CEO of The Bay Foundation, theorized that it could be a little of both. 

“One, during COVID budget constraints, municipalities cut back on street services, which causes trash to pile up in the streets and then get washed down the storm drains,” Ford said. “Two, the strong Santa Ana wind conditions may have created wind patterns that concentrated floating material on the ocean’s surface.”