Tom Jones (SCOTT SMELTZER, HB Independent / August 29, 2010)

There's a clever and little-seen comedy called "Twenty Bucks" that follows the path of a $20 bill as it passes from one person to another — a newlywed, a gangster, a struggling author and so on. The idea of the film is that the same object, in different circumstances, can have any number of impacts on any number of people.

One could make a much more sobering film with the same basic premise, substituting a piece of plastic for a $20 bill. Seriously, the last time you threw a plastic bag or bottle cap into the trash (or on the ground), did you imagine where it would go next?

The journey of a plastic scrap can start on the sidewalk and move through the park, into the storm drain, onto the beach and finally into one of the massive gyres of plastic at the bottom of the ocean, where it breaks into particles and begins a new journey into the mouths of fishes and onto the plates of meat-eaters.

At least, it makes that journey unless someone intervenes. And that someone may be Tom Jones, a Huntington Beach resident who launched a new project this year to halt plastic before it turns into dolphins' dinner.

Maybe you remember Jones from his world-record paddleboard trek last year, when he traveled 1,507 miles from Florida to New York. Jones, who runs the nonprofit Plastic Free Ocean, made the trip to raise awareness about plastic in the water — and sometimes to fish it out himself. The day after New Year's Day, the seven-time kickboxing champion started a new initiative called the Paddler Pickup Project, in which volunteers mount kayaks and paddleboards and venture into Huntington Harbour to remove trash.

Plastic Free Ocean coordinated cleanups worldwide Jan. 2, with groups taking off from Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Florida and elsewhere. In Huntington Beach, the rain reduced the group to fewer than a dozen people, but according to Jones, they still reclaimed 50 pounds of trash in an hour.

A few days before the cleanup, Jones invited me to kayak out with him and see the condition of the water. Andrew Mencinksy, the executive director of the Surfers' Environmental Alliance, accompanied us, while Andrew Allen, the owner of OEX Sunset Beach, provided the kayak and boards.

As Allen noted, Huntington Harbour isn't in an industrial area, but a heavy rain like the one we had in December brings runoff. That became apparent within a minute or two of our hitting the water. Among the items we recovered with our paddles were a Cheetos bag, spray paint cans, condom wrappers, Styrofoam cups and even a stray kayak paddle.

Jones envisions a program similar to Adopt-A-Highway, in which people or organizations can adopt a harbor or other stretch of water. The next cleanup is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday and will take off from OEX at 16910 Pacific Coast Hwy. Visit http://www.plasticfreeocean.org for more information.

During a cleanup like this, it's hard not to think about numbers. How many particles will one wrapper dissolve into if it remains in the water? And how many fish will consume those particles, and how many humans will consume those fish?

Considering the massive amounts of plastic already in the ocean — visit 5gyres.org for an idea — a single piece of trash may not seem like much. But I always remember the parable about the boy who, faced with a beach full of starfish that have been washed ashore, tosses one back in the ocean and proclaims, "It makes a difference to that one."

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com.