I Spy Trash


In the 2 1/2 years I’ve lived in Los Angeles and worked at LA Waterkeeper, I’ve been involved in over two dozen beach and river cleanups, but the world just keeps getting dirtier. If you’ve ever been to a cleanup before, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the day after the cleanup and you’re walking down your street or out running errands and a Dorito bag catches your eye from under a bush. Then a shopping bag. And a soda can. And another…it’s everyone. You can’t help but notice the litter on the streets, the over flowing trash cans, and cigarette butts in the storm drains.

Within our homes and on store shelves these items seem harmless. The reality is, it’s the same stuff we find as litter on our streets, in our parks, and our favorite hiking trails. With the help of urban runoff, litter makes its way to our rivers and oceans via the storm drain system. And it doesn’t end there– plastics are non-biodegradable and don’t fully deteriorate in the environment. Consequently, some trash can remain in the environment indefinitely. A lot of the trash we see in our trash surveys and cleanups is single-use plastic, meaning it was used for a matter of minutes and then discarded. For example, plastic shopping bags to transport groceries from your cart to your home, plastic straws ( and their wrappers!) and lids for a coffee on the go, all consumed and discarded in a few minutes time. What looks like an inert, innocuous plastic fork is actually a sponge to accumulate organic pollutants like PAHs and PCBs in magnified concentrations. As plastic photo-degrades, it becomes the perfect size for a fish to ingest and consume the pollutants it carries with it. Basically, what we put in the water doesn’t just dirty up the ocean and beaches, it could end up on our dinner plate.

Through the 2013 Southern California Regional Monitoring Program (Bight 13), LA Waterkeeper, along with other Keeps and agencies, is currently conducting the first rigorous study of trash in urban rivers from Los Angeles to San Diego. This study will focus on accumulation, characterization, transport mechanisms, and the amount of trash and debris in local rivers to help us better understand the sources of riverine and marine pollution. Here are some facts about litter that we already know:

  • The average American generates 4.5 lbs. of waste daily
  • Marine and riverine trash cause severe adverse effects to marine and terrestrial wildlife via ingestion and bio-accumulation of contaminants, entanglement, smothering, and destruction of habitat.
  • Appx. 80% of marine debris is generated from land-based sources.
  • LA spends the most at $36.3 million per year in efforts to keep trash from polluting the beaches, rivers and ocean (and we still have trash in our waterways!)

Our Trash Study is a great volunteer opportunity to learn and directly benefit the environment. To learn more about volunteering opportunities like this one, visit our Volunteer Page!

Testimonial from Los Angeles Waterkeeper Intern, Marlene Alvarado, on her experience volunteering with our Trash Study project:

A couple of Saturday’s ago, volunteers (myself included) of LA Waterkeeper, gathered at Brookside Park near the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena for the Bight 13 Trash Survey training. As we went over the day plan, I noticed that the residential area, the road, and even Brookside Park seemed so tidy. I only hoped that the Arroyo Seco where our field training was going to take place would be just as tidy and seemingly clean. I was in for a surprise…

At first glance, Arroyo Seco looks like a wonderful nature parkway with a shady trail alongside the stream. Taking a closer look, however, the stream was laden with trash, most of which was so entangled in the reeds and natural debris that it was difficult to spot. Over 250 pieces of trash were collected from our training site that covered around 100 square feet. About 90% of the trash we collected was some form of plastic, food wrapper, or Styrofoam. Moreover, the stench of the water resembled that of mildew and sewage, indicative of other forms of pollution. Not exactly the wonderful waterway I first perceived. Unfortunately, human generated debris has and will continue to contaminate this stream, unless further pollution is prevented. This is why it is important to recognize the necessity of reducing, reusing and recycling to eliminate our wasteful ways and prevent the pollution of our local waters.


– Lara Meeker, Watershed Program Manager

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