Beach cleanups a practice worth “parroting”

Terri Dale

Terri Dale, head of the Northwest Indiana Parrothead Club's Adopt-a-Beach program.

Story and photos by Abby Crisostomo

Lake Michigan’s sandy shores may not be the first to spring to mind when imagining oneself lounging on the beach listening to “Margaritaville.” Yet Terri Dale of Northwest Indiana, and her band of fellow Jimmy Buffett fans, aka “Parrotheads,” found a match made in paradise in their mutual appreciation for a certain cheeseburger-and-island-loving crooner and the Great Lakes’ sandy shores. Led by Dale – secretary of the Northwest Indiana Parrothead Club and head of the group’s Adopt-a-Beach™ team – these Parrotheads have been “partying with a purpose” by participating in the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-a-Beach™ program since 2008.

September is a banner month for beach cleanups around the world. The Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 17 has organized nearly 9 million volunteers in 152 countries to spruce up some 300,000 miles of shoreline over the past 25 years. In the Great Lakes region, the event is known as September Adopt-a-Beach™, with dozens of cleanups scheduled for beaches in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin (read on for locations and times).

The Northwest Indiana Parrothead Club is one of many groups that provide supplies and manage tasks to direct thousands of local volunteers who participate in Adopt-a-Beach™. On Sept. 17, they will lead their seventh beach cleanup at Kemil Beach near Beverly Shores, Ind., “I have lived within 10 miles of this beach … for over 40 years, but never really appreciated it,” she says. “This awesome body of freshwater has a new meaning to me and will be one of my favorite destinations.”

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late June, about 20 volunteers gathered at Kemil Beach’s south parking lot. After signing in with Dale who gave them supplies – gloves, garbage bags, and forms – they headed to their usual one-mile stretch of beach, from Windsor to East State Park Boundary Road.

Kemil Beach is part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which runs along the southern tip of Lake Michigan from Gary to Michigan City, Ind. The beach is managed by the National Park Service (NPS). On that Saturday in June, some 50 people were enjoying the beach, sunbathing, wading, and playing volleyball, as the Parrotheads spent the next hour collecting trash. They tallied 70 pounds of garbage, 20 pounds more than their last cleanup. Their stash was not too out of the ordinary – cigarette butts and beer bottles – though they recounted strange past finds, such as bras, CDs and tampons.

As part of the Adopt-a-Beach™ program, some of the volunteers split off from the rest to monitor water quality. One volunteer donned waist-high waders to collect a water sample from Lake Michigan. They tested the water for bacteria and other indicators of poor water quality, then completed a “routine visit form,” aligned with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) sanitary survey to make data collection and sharing easier.

Beach cleanups have immediate beneficial effects for the Great Lakes: Cleaner beaches keep trash and polluting substances out of the water, which can degrade our drinking water source and be harmful to aquatic life. Though many beaches along Lake Michigan are flyways for migratory birds and important habitats for these bird species, it is important to manage garbage, which can tip nature’s balance. On the shoreline, garbage attracts an over-abundance of some birds, such as gulls and pigeons, whose feces contaminate the water, contributing to beach closures. While the NPS maintenance crews regularly empty beach trash cans and pick up garbage strewn on the sand, volunteers like Dale and the Parrotheads help keep our beaches clean in between scheduled pick-ups.

They also collect a wealth of data during their cleanups, including the amount and type of garbage collected, which helps authorities identify pollution problem areas and determine funding priorities. “Not only do our volunteers give us on-the-ground data of how to best reduce beach pollution, their findings are now being used to inform the efforts of government regulators,” says the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Water Quality Program Manager Lyman Welch. “With government resources limited, our volunteers are a valuable resource to protect and restore the Great Lakes.” Case in point: The EPA and Illinois EPA recently used data collected by volunteers to inform a report on Illinois bacterial pollution sources.

Water quality surveys completed by volunteers also help identify contamination sources, such as wastewater outfall pipes and overflowing garbage cans. This information will be useful to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a federal action plan that is engaging local, regional and state governments, as well as universities and nonprofits, in addressing five urgent Great Lakes issues through 2014 (learn about all five issues at GLRI’s web site). So far, Illinois universities, local governments and regional agencies have received over $60 million in funding from the Initiative for 43 projects and Indiana has received nearly $12.5 million for 18 projects to protect and restore Lake Michigan.

One of GLRI’s goals is to reduce or eliminate pollution sources. Of course, littered beaches and scat from wildlife are just two of those sources: The Alliance for the Great Lakes’ latest report, Emerging Contaminant Threats and the Great Lakes, analyzed data about the growing number of chemicals and pharmaceuticals found in the Great Lakes as well as their effects on wildlife and humans. The report recommended fresh research, innovative technologies to remove contaminants, behavioral changes in the marketplace, and policy reforms to address this concern. In Illinois, Governor Patrick Quinn recently signed two bills that will begin to address contaminated water by improving and enhancing pharmaceutical collection and disposal. (Join Openlands and the Metropolitan Planning Council for a roundtable on Thursday, Sept. 15, to learn more about emerging contaminants and how to keep to keep them out of our water.)

While policy change may not keep cigarette butts and beer bottles off our beaches, volunteers do. Their strong sense of stewardship also can help sway others, including decision-makers take better care of our Great Lakes. “Cleanups help others not be pigs,” says Lynda Lancaster of the NPS. “Because most of the volunteers are local, they are the ones that most benefit from the clean beach and they are the ones least likely to trash the beach.”

Indeed, Dale, the Parrotheads, and other Adopt-a-Beach™ participants have expressed increased appreciation for and ownership of the Great Lakes. For instance, Dale also partners with the Alliance for the Great Lakes to monitor water quality at Washington Park in Michigan City, Ind., through a project funded by the Indiana Lake Michigan Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program. Local and state beach authorities use the data to help determine why some Indiana beaches have had high numbers of beach closures and some of the highest levels of bacteria in the country. Other volunteers have gone on to raise money for Great Lakes causes, educate others about the need to protect the resource, and pressure local and national leaders to focus more attention and funding on the Lakes.

So perhaps that is the greatest benefits of beach cleanups: engaging people to care about a living resource in their backyards and educating them – and observers – about what our water is worth.

You can do your part by participating in September Adopt-a-Beach™ on Saturday, Sept. 17. More than three dozen events will take place across the region. Read on for locations, and then register on the Adopt-a-Beach™ web site for specific details about each event.

  • Saturday, Sept. 10, Hollywood-Ardmore/Kathy Osterman Beach, Chicago
  • Saturday, Sept. 10, North Avenue Beach, Chicago
  • Saturday, Sept. 12, Waukegan North/Municipal Beach, Waukegan, Ill.
  • Saturday, Sept. 17:
    • North Point Marina Beach, Winthrop Harbor, Ill.
    • Mouth of Waukegan River, Waukegan, Ill.
    • Openlands Lakeshore Preserve in Fort Sheridan, Ill.
    • Ravine Drive Beach (Millard Park), Highland Park, Ill.
    • Langdon Beach, Wilmette, Ill.
    • Gillson Park Beach, Wilmette, Ill.
    • Evanston Lighthouse Beach, Evanston, Ill.
    • Lee Beach, Evanston, Ill.
    • Clark Square Park, Evanston, Ill.
    • Dempster-Greenwood Beach, Evanston, Ill.
    • South Beach, Evanston, Ill.
    • Juneway Terrace Park Beach, Chicago
    • Howard Street Beach, Chicago
    • Loyola Beach, Chicago
    • Pratt Blvd and Park Beach, Chicago
    • Foster Avenue Beach, Chicago
    • Montrose Beach, Chicago
    • Hollywood-Ardmore/Kathy Osterman Beach, Chicago
    • Belmont Harbor Dog Beach, Chicago
    • Fullerton Beach, Chicago
    • North Avenue Beach, Chicago
    • Ohio Street Beach, Chicago
    • 41st Street Beach, Chicago
    • 57th Street Beach, Chicago
    • 63rd Street Beach/Jackson Park Beach, Chicago
    • 71st Street Beach/South Shore Beach, Chicago
    • Rainbow Beach, Chicago
    • Calumet Beach, Chicago
    • Whihala Beach County Park – East, Whiting, Ind.
    • Hammond Marina Beach, Hammond, Ind.
    • Jeorse Park Beach, East Chicago, Ind.
    • Marquette Park Beach, Gary, Ind.
    • Ogden Dunes Beach, Ogden Dunes, Ind.
    • Coffee Creek, Chesterton, Ind.
    • Indiana Dunes State Park, Chesterton, Ind.
    • Kemil Beach, Michigan City, Ind.
    • Lakeview Beach, Beverly Shores, Ind.
    • Central Beach, Michigan City, Ind.
    • Washington Park Beach, Michigan City, Ind.
    • Michiana Shores – Stop 37, Michigan City, Ind.

WOWW Factors


The value of the time and efforts contributed by volunteers in 2010 in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

31,295 lbs

Amount of trash removed by more than 10,700 volunteers at 292 beaches in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota in 2010.

24 hours

Time it takes for standard water quality testing done by beach authorities to produce results. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has pilot-tested rapid-testing and predictive modeling systems that provide real-time results, but they have been implemented at only a few beaches, including Forest Park Beach in Lake Forest, Ill., Rosewood Beach in Highland Park, Ill., and Waukegan Beach in Waukegan, Ill.

Beach Health Tips

Do not feed birds or animals. Feces from animals can spread bacteria and micro-organisms into the water, making it unsafe for swimming. It’s also important to remove all pet waste and make sure children go on proper bathroom breaks.

Properly dispose of all food and garbage. Almost all public beaches have garbage and recycling receptacles. Use them to protect animals, water and people from potentially dangerous and contaminating litter.

Find more tips in the Healthy Beaches Action Guide: How You Can Help Your Great Lakes Shoreline create by the Alliance for the Great Lakes.


Illinois Beach Monitoring, Illinois Department of Public Health

Indiana BeachGuard, Indiana Department of Environmental Management

Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Emerging Contaminant Threats and the Great Lakes, Alliance for the Great Lakes

See what the Chicago Park District is doing to better maintain the beach and what you can do to help them.

The NPS does water quality monitoring weekly from April to November and retest if the test results show poor quality. The NPS’ beach maintenance at the Lakeshore is entirely funded through federal appropriations, but greatly benefits from volunteer efforts. Though volunteers are not paid, the NPS assigns $22 per hour for all volunteer hours, which helps calculate funding for the volunteer program.

This entry was posted in Water Stories and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Beach cleanups a practice worth “parroting”

  1. Pingback: Great Lakes’ Alliance hosts annual Adopt-A-Beach program this September « all things green

  2. Thank you to the Northwest Indiana Parrothead Club for cleaning up Kemil Beach. And thank you to Abby Crisostomo, Openlands and the Metropolitan Planning Council for spreading the word about Adopt-a-Beach™!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>