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Beach trips can be costly to the environment. Here’s how to reduce your impact.

The Long Branch beach in New Jersey on June 26. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency /Getty Images)
6 min

For many people, summer is synonymous with the beach. But with hundreds of millions of Americans flocking to coastal areas each year, especially during months when the weather fluctuates between balmy and sweltering, experts say these trips can contribute to the staggering effects of human activities on beaches and oceans.

“What’s interesting about the beach … is it’s actually where the three major threats to the ocean come together,” said George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, referring to climate change, pollution (particularly from plastics) and impacts on the abundance and biodiversity of marine life.

“If you go to the beach and you’re not thoughtful about it, you can contribute to all three of those problems,” Leonard said. “Likewise, if you go to the beach and you play your part, you can be a solution to all three.”

The good news is that there are many steps you can take to minimize the environmental impact of your beach vacation. “People who enjoy the beach and love to go and see the shoreline are more likely to protect it, so we don’t want people to stop going,” said Alison Branco, climate adaptation director at the Nature Conservancy in New York. “We just want them to use those resources responsibly.”

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It starts at home

Some of the biggest impacts to oceans occur before you get to the beach. Billions of pounds of trash and other pollutants enter the ocean each year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — and one of the largest sources is nonpoint source pollution, which occurs from runoff.

“We all live upstream of someone’s favorite waterway,” said Steve Fleischli, senior director for water initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If you overwater your lawn, if you don’t pick up after your pets, if you litter in the street, in most places, all of that washes downstream into a local waterway.”

And it doesn’t matter how far you are from the coast, Branco added. Nearly “all of the water on our continent eventually winds up in the ocean.”

You can also reduce pollution from runoff by not over-fertilizing lawns or choosing to grow native plants that typically don’t require fertilizer. Additionally, it’s important to make sure your home has good wastewater treatment.

Backed-up pipes, stinky yards: Climate change is wrecking septic tanks

Consider travel, accommodations and meals

Think about how far you’re going — planning a trip close to home is preferred — as well as transportation. “One of the easy things to overlook is the impact of getting there,” Branco said.

If you need to fly, online resources, including Google Flights, can help estimate carbon emissions. Taking a train, renting an electric vehicle or carpooling are also more environmentally friendly options to consider.

Be similarly mindful of where you’re staying during your trip. “Finding that sweet spot between affordability and being able to then get to the beach and back on your own two feet or on your own two wheels is kind of the best option in terms of your wallet and in terms of the climate,” Leonard said.

You can also choose to stay in places that are investing in greener practices, such as “a hotel in a LEED-certified building, one that uses biodegradable key cards, mobile check-in or solar power,” The Washington Post’s Natalie Compton reported. On top of that, try not asking for housekeeping every day, not getting new towels or bedding during your stay, and avoiding any single-use items in your room.

How to actually make your travel better for the planet

Another way people can impact the ocean is through food choices, particularly seafood, Leonard said. If you’re planning to have seafood on your trip, opt for more sustainable offerings from the ocean. To assess options, Leonard suggests turning to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which provides information on sustainable seafood and downloadable guides for consumers.

At the beach

Your actions at the beach can be the difference between leaving the environment worse off or taking care of it — and maybe even improving things during your vacation, experts said.

Think about what you’re bringing. To minimize the amount of trash you produce, steer clear of disposable packaging and single-use plastics, which can be carried away by wind, left behind or not thrown away properly. Pack food or snacks in reusable containers and bring your own straw, water bottle and utensils.

“Those kinds of reusable things make a huge difference in the amount of debris that gets into the water,” Branco said.

She also recommends bringing an empty receptacle, such as a mesh bag, to collect your trash or any other garbage you might come across.

Check your sunscreen. Some sunscreens, which may wash off and get into the water, contain chemicals that can harm marine life.

While many products are advertised as “reef safe” or “reef friendly,” concerns have been expressed that such labels are “largely a marketing term” or “a sales gimmick.” Make sure to closely examine a product’s active ingredients yourself. According to NOAA, chemicals to look out for include: Oxybenzone, Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-Benzylidene camphor, Nano-Titanium dioxide, Nano-Zinc oxide, Octinoxate and Octocrylene.

You can also wear hats or long-sleeves and stay in the shade to cut down on the amount of sunscreen you need to apply, Leonard said.

Respect the environment. “There are often signs or staff at beaches that will tell you things that they would prefer you not do,” Branco said. It’s important to listen because you could be causing harm to the environment — in some cases, unknowingly.

Some common don’ts include:

  • Venturing into areas that are roped off, which are typically nesting sites for birds or turtles.
  • Walking or playing on sand dunes and trampling on the beach grass and other plants that hold dunes together.
  • Boating or jetskiing outside of designated channels and harming marine life.
  • Getting too close to or interacting with wildlife instead of observing from afar.

“It’s always best to just leave the beach the way it is,” she said. “Come and enjoy it and observe it, but leave it there for the next person.”

Leave no trace. In addition to picking up after yourself, you can do your own beach cleanup, Leonard said. For families with children, he suggested turning the activity into a game, such as a treasure hunt.

“Not only have you then taken what you came with, but you’ve actually made the ocean and the beach a better place because you’ve taken back more than you actually brought to the beach,” he said.

It’s best to take your trash with you and throw it away once you’re off the beach, experts said. Garbage cans along the shore are often overflowing and although you intended to be responsible with your trash, loose debris could be caught by the wind and end up on the beach or in the ocean.

“There’s the adage, if you’re a hiker on land, that you should take only pictures and leave only footprints, and I think we need to think the same way around the beach,” Leonard said