Marine veterans combat SF’s pandemic pollution with brand-new cleanup effort

‘I wanted to build a community that allowed people to have a purpose again’

By Jessica Wolfrom

Examiner staff writer

When Kyle Hansen enlisted in the United States Marine Corps straight out of high school in Orange County, he never imagined he’d be traveling the country cleaning up other people’s trash. He had ambitions of moving up the ranks as an infantryman.

But nearly four years into his service as a squad leader, he was blown from a vehicle when it slipped into a ditch and hit an exposed gas line during a training exercise. The accident left Hansen with third and fourth degree burns and a traumatic brain injury, cutting his military dreams short.

During eight long months of intensive rehabilitation at Camp Pendleton, Hansen, 25, started to see headlines raising alarms about the great Pacific garbage patch and drew an immediate connection to the litter he kicked around on Southern California beaches. It was then that he enlisted himself in a new mission: environmental stewardship.

Two years ago, Hansen and a fellow Marine, Andrew Levin, founded Recycle for Veterans, a nonprofit that brings veterans and volunteers together to serve their communities and the environment through community trash pick-ups. The organization recently expanded its reach to the Bay Area, and Hansen and his team will be cleaning up Lands End Trail this weekend, with another event planned at Baker Beach in September.

The mission has been more challenging than expected. As the pandemic steamrolled its way across the country, many took to the outdoors, seeking refuge from the monotony of lockdowns in the natural world. But as people crowded The City’s beaches, parks and trails, so too, did their trash, including personal protective equipment, which washed into Bay Area waterways and piled up on public trails. Complicating this, volunteer groups dedicated to managing waste were shut down due to concerns about the virus, leaving organizations like RFV to pick up the slack.

“Everyone stopped because of COVID,” said Hansen, who continued clean-up events throughout the pandemic. “So, if anything it was more important to be out there cleaning then than ever. That’s why we stuck to it.”

To date, Hansen’s organization has collected over 15,000 pounds of garbage across five U.S. cities with plans to expand across the country.

Recycle For Veterans oversaw a cleanup in San Diego in July. (Courtesy Wali Rahman)

Recycle For Veterans oversaw a cleanup in San Diego in July. (Courtesy Wali Rahman)

But two cleanups in the Bay Area may not be enough. Lynn Adams, president of the Pacific Beach Coalition, a nonprofit focused on ocean conservation, saw an explosion of masks and gloves strewn on beaches, in parking lots, and overflowing trash cans in her Pacifica community.

“The PPE is horrible because we really haven’t seen that in the past,” she said, noting that crowded lots sometimes prevented her team from accessing the beaches. “And it’s not just been the beaches. It’s not just been the parking lots. But people are walking from farther away and the debris has been left along the streets.”

In 2019, her organization collected over 23,000 pounds of trash off Bay Area beaches. Last year, that number jumped to 25,000 pounds, with nearly half as many volunteers due to covid restrictions.

And it’s not just PPE that’s making its way into the Bay. “There’s been a dramatic increase in single-use plastics from restaurants,” Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of Baykeeper, an environmental nonprofit. “Around the Bay, we’re finding more plastic clamshells, utensils and to-go food containers than we’ve seen previously.”

Throughout the pandemic, consumption of single-use plastics, take-out containers and disposable PPE skyrocketed. A recent study in the Environment, Science & Technology journal estimates that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used each month.

Although the National Park Service, which oversees the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, couldn’t share specific data on the park’s waste, spokesperson Julian Espinoza said the agency “continues to see high levels of visitation across our park, and in particular at our beaches and coastal areas.”

In San Francisco, Rachel Gordon, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Department of Public Works, said data doesn’t bear out a meaningful increase in litter on city streets. But she added that the department’s cleaning crews have noticed an increase in used masks and disposable gloves, noting that the department doesn’t keep specific data on PPE waste.

Trash collection in public spaces not serviced by the DPW also became more complicated, as volunteer efforts were shut down due to the pandemic. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy has delayed many of its volunteer activities due to concerns over the virus, according to its website. DPW also shut down its Community Clean Team in March 2020, although Gordon said the department continues to support smaller group clean-up events.

The void in volunteers was one reason Hansen wanted to host RFV’s first Northern California cleanup in The City. “One, there’s a tremendous amount of people in San Francisco. Two, it can get pretty dirty,” he said. “We hope to actually work with San Francisco government. We want to work to tackle this issue and be there to support.”

But Hansen’s mission is not just about clearing litter. He’s also focused on helping veterans transition from soldier to civilian life. “You go from being with your brothers and sisters that you served with every day, and when you get out, you don’t have that anymore,” he said. “I wanted to build a community that allowed people to have a purpose again.”

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