Volunteers rally around the planet for Clean Up the World Weekend

September 14, 2018, 3:18 p.m.
beach cleanup in Lima, Peru
Photo: Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images

Millions of people will spend this weekend hunkering down amid Hurricane Florence and Super Typhoon Mangkhut, which are battering the Eastern U.S. and Southeast Asia, respectively. In places with clearer weather, however, hordes of volunteers will be doing the opposite of those cyclones, beautifying beaches and other environments for Clean Up the World Weekend.

This event dates back to 1993, when the nonprofit Clean Up the World was founded, and thus marks its 25th anniversary this year. It also corresponds with similar projects like World Cleanup Day on Sept. 15, a global event that began 10 years ago in Estonia, and more local efforts like the Great British Beach Clean, which will mark its 25th anniversary this weekend, too.

Nearly 7,000 volunteers joined the Great British Beach Clean in 2017, gathering garbage from 339 locations all across the U.K. This year's silver anniversary is expected to set a new record, the Guardian reports, with more than 7,300 volunteers and 432 cleanup locations already registered before the weekend. Last year's event netted 718 pieces of trash for every 100 meters (328 feet) of beach cleaned, according to the Marine Conservation Society (MSC), a 10 percent increase from 2016.

Unsurprisingly, the garbage collected in beach cleanups tends to be plastic, part of a global plague of plastic waste that increasingly pollutes oceans as well as rivers, lakes and other waterways. On U.K. beaches, for example, 63 percent of all items discarded by the public are "on the go" litter like drink cups, plastic cutlery, straws, sandwich bags and plastic bottles, according to the MSC.

Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the world's oceans every year, a 2015 study found, creating a diffuse mess that can entangle, poison or clog the digestive tracts of marine animals from albatrosses to sea turtles to whales.

World Cleanup Day and Clean Up the World Weekend aren't only about beaches, however. Both are broad efforts to boost the health of many different ecosystems, and include trash removal from rivers, forests and streets as well as cluttered coastlines. World Cleanup Day will rally millions of volunteers from 156 countries, according to its organizers, and like all such events, its goal is more about long-term awareness and engagement than a single day or weekend of action.

"The aim of the World Cleanup Day is not just to clean up the waste, but to be an uncompromising eye-opener about the severity of the global mismanaged waste crisis," says Eva Truuverk, the head of the managing board of the Let's Do It! movement, which organizes the annual event. "We are going to deliver the biggest experiential environmental lesson ever carried out on Earth, and this puts us a big step closer to start dealing with the root causes of it. Because only our collective awareness and strong public pressure on our policymakers and enterprises will bring forth the necessary steps."