The One Thing Missing From Beach Cleanups

CC BY 2.0. Save The Bay -- It's all about that clipboard. We need to start tracking the brands behind plastic waste.

It's time we held brands accountable for the waste they create.

If you've ever participated in a beach cleanup before, then you'll know how satisfying it is to remove trash from a designated area and return a natural area to a pristine state. The only problem is, the trash comes back eventually. With so much of it floating in the world's oceans, lakes, and waterways, it's only a matter of time until the places that were cleared so diligently are once again cluttered with the detritus of consumerism.

So, is there anything a person can do to stop this never-ending flow of garbage? Environmental activist group The Story of Stuff has a clever suggestion. In recognition of Coastal Cleanup Day, which will take place on September 15th, the organization is asking beach cleaners to add an extra step to their routines this week: Name the brands of the collected trash in order to hold manufacturers accountable. This enables people to "identify the companies whose products most often end up in the environment, so we can work together to hold them accountable for their waste."

Formally, this is called a 'brand audit'. A toolkit compiled by Break Free From Plastic lays out the basic steps for how to do it:

1) Make a waste deposit plan. You'll need to know what to do with all the trash you collect. Divide it into recyclables, compostables, and residual waste. It's this latter category that you'll be working with.

2) Get protective gear. Use gloves and tongs, bins, bags, and buckets for collection, and printed Brand Audit forms on a clipboard (available here).

3) Choose your location. The size should be relative to the number of volunteers and the boundaries laid out clearly ahead of time. Take before and after photos.

4) Record your data. There are two ways to do this. The first method is to gather all collected waste and separate the plastics. Divide the plastics into piles by type, then divide those piles into groups by brand. The second method categorizes items as you collect them. Have one or two people picking up trash, while another records it on the Brand Audit form.

5) Hold brands accountable! After you've cleaned up the whole area and disposed of collected waste, upload pictures of brand-specific trash to social media and tag the manufacturers. Don't forget to use the #breakfreefromplastic hashtag. Also, enter collection data online to help paint a bigger picture of the situation.

After years of consumers being told that they are the source of the problem and that their bad litter habit is what's driving all this waste, it's time to turn that narrative around. While littering remains a problem, the far bigger issue is that companies are failing to come up with end-of-life solutions for their packaging. As a narrator says in video below, "We'll let the world know who the real litterbugs are." By drawing attention to these inadequacies in a public forum, companies will finally have the incentive they need to clean up their own acts, and hopefully we won't have to clean beaches forever.