How Do You Solve the Trash Problem at Beaches?

Residents of Wareham contacted NBC10 Boston about the trash piling up near Onset Beach. Despite the warning of $500 fines for littering, enforcement can be rare.

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On a Monday morning, Kat Jones began her weekly trash sweep to see what remnants from the summer weekend were left behind by visitors of Onset Beach.

Jones, the executive director of the Onset Bay Association, surveyed the beach and nearby park space for litter. As she walked, Jones plucked items from the ground and filled a bucket with bottles, cans and food wrappers.

“On a typical Monday, there is devastation and absolute carnage everywhere,” Jones told us. “I’m really tired of picking up dirty diapers.”

The Town of Wareham adopted a carry in, carry out policy, meaning beachgoers are supposed to take their trash with them when they head home, either finding an available barrel along the way or transporting it in their vehicles.

But all too often, Jones said that message falls on deaf ears. Trash quickly overflows and collects next to bins located near the recreation hotspot. Litter scatters across the sand, sometimes right next to signs urging people to keep the beach clean.

NBC10 Boston
Litter at Onset Beach

“I’ve been here when there are literally pizza boxes stacked as tall as me,” Jones said. “It’s just a sign of disrespect to throw your stuff on the ground and leave it carelessly behind.”

Garry Buckminster has been the town’s harbormaster for the past 26 years and knows the topic is a perennial sore spot for residents. Among all the water safety responsibilities of his small department, Buckminster said there is little time for trash patrol.

“I feel for the people that are complaining and I understand their frustration,” he told us. “I’m a resident of this town, too. I don’t like people littering on the beach.”

Despite the presence of surveillance cameras and signs warning of $500 fines for littering, we found enforcement is rare.

Our public records request to the police department revealed there have been just 12 violations totaling about $5,000 in fines over the past three years.

“If we can catch them in the act, we will,” Buckminster said. “It’s not as easy as everybody thinks to say, ‘Oh, that person is littering.’”

Multiple Massachusetts beaches were closed due to high levels of bacteria.

Even when someone is caught in the act, it’s not always possible to identify the litterbug.

That happened recently when the surveillance cameras captured a dog owner leaving a pile of animal waste on the town’s new dock system. The Wareham DNR instead opted for social media shaming to spread the message about keeping the beach clean.

Still, it’s clear some residents think the town should be doing more. Hundreds of comments fill online community forums about the issue. One group of fed up residents contacted NBC10 Boston and told us to come take a look for ourselves.

A main part of the debate centers around whether the town should place more trash bins along the beach and perform regular maintenance to empty them during the summer tourist season.

NBC10 Boston
An overflowing dumpster at Onset Beach

But environmental groups we spoke with said that adding more trash barrels would not make the issue disappear in coastal communities.

“I think it’s a problem up and down our coastline,” said Ben Hellerstein, the director of Environment Massachusetts.

We met Hellerstein at Revere Beach, where DCR workers making regular rounds to empty trash cans placed along the boardwalk.

But it still wasn’t hard for us to find litter in the sand. That’s why Hellerstein believes the key is for communities to limit single-use items that are more likely to get tossed, ending up in beaches and waterways.

“The only way to solve this problem is to phase out some of these most harmful products, like plastic bags and Styrofoam cups,” Hellerstein said.

Back in Wareham, Jones finished up her trash sweep and wondered what it will take for visitors at her town’s beach to only leave their footprints behind.

“It just makes me said,” she told us. “We live on the ocean and it’s a beautiful place. I just wish people would take better care of it.”

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