Torrential Rainstorm Sends Plastic Pollution into the Ocean

This past September, a record-breaking storm dumped 2.39 inches of rain on Los Angeles, CA, making it the wettest day of the year in Southern California. A September downpour like this usually results in a phenomenon called the “first flush,” where accumulated debris in flood control channels and storm drains rushes into the sea. Imagine hundreds of square miles of urban pollution washing into the ocean virtually overnight. Our rivers become choked with tons of unsightly and hazardous debris, most of it single-use plastic.

Many cities, especially in California, work hard to limit the amount of debris being released into the ocean. However, the physical devices they employ are not always effective in keeping the debris from entering the ocean, especially during the rainy season. And although we would like to imagine immediate remediation as a top priority following the first flush, cities have failed to develop networks of first responders trained to capture and collect the debris. Without prompt human intervention, heaps of trash accumulate on beaches and float along the coast for weeks until eventually washing out to sea.

Surfers and beachgoers take it seriously when health officials recommend avoiding storm drain-impacted beaches for 5 to 10 days after a storm. Since Southern California residents plan their beach days around water quality, many people never experience the damage caused by the first flush. They may see photos being shared across social media but it’s impossible to understand the sheer scope of the devastation until you see it firsthand.

As part of a plastic pollution prevention campaign lead by Algalita Marine Research and Education, I’ve been studying how our local community reacts to waste, litter, and debris. First flush was the perfect opportunity to investigate how citizens might respond to such a devastating event. I grabbed my camera, gloves, and a box of trash bags and headed down to the mouth of the San Gabriel River.

When I arrived, I was excited to see a handful of people collecting trash. “Awesome! First responders!” I thought as I ran down to assist in the cleanup. However as I got closer, I realized the group collecting the refuse wasn’t a cleanup crew, they were trash pickers.

I met a man who was collecting soccer balls, baseballs, and dog toys to sell at the swap meet. Another man, who happened to be homeless, had collected 19 bags of plastic bottles. One lady came down to search for wallets and cash (we ended up finding two, although they were empty). Together we retrieved two full-sized beanbags, a motorcycle helmet, two sleeping bags, a ski, a yoga mat, roller blades, bike tires, four pillows, and about 30 shoes.

My new friends explained that a lot of big stuff comes from homeless encampments along the rivers. Since they’re neglected by the city, the majority of their discards are thrown directly into the river; however, their contribution to the problem should not overshadow their contribution to the solution. They play an integral role in our broken waste management systems by utilizing waste as a resource.

Over a three-hour period, I watched these people fill their carts and bags with society’s most valuable discards. And although their relationship with the first flush is purely business, every single picker I interviewed on Tuesday was profoundly disheartened by the mess. Much of the debris was completely worthless, and anything we couldn’t fit into my eight trash bags remained on the beach.

The high tide devoured more than three quarters of the beach debris before the city’s trash tractor had a chance to pick it up the next morning. It’s frustrating to know that we missed our chance to make a significant impact all because low tide happened during off-hours. This experience has inspired Algalita to organize a community Storm Debris Response Team for beaches impacted by the San Gabriel River.

Although beach cleanups remove trash that might otherwise end up endangering wildlife, the most effective way to stop plastic pollution from impacting our ocean is to look upstream – and to make sure it never reaches the water in the first place. The solutions to plastic pollution are complex, however many people and organizations around the world are working on critical prevention efforts. A few top priorities include:

  • Expanding research, outreach, and education
  • Creating incentives for industry to redesign their products to be more valuable and sustainable
  • Requiring producers to pay for the post-consumer collection and processing of any plastics introduced into the marketplace
  • Working to standardize the act of recycling
  • Encouraging businesses and restaurants to reduce their use of single-use plastic
  • Implementing sustainability models in local communities
  • Establishing international prevention guidelines
  • Pushing legislation to ban plastic bags, polystyrene, and microbeads
  • Working with cities to launch and monitor Total Maximum Daily Load Programs (TMDL), improve recycling efforts, better plastic facility tracking, and address homeless encampments

What you can do:

  • Rethink single-use plastic
  • Recycle what you cannot refuse
  • Support your local economy
  • Encourage your business or school to rethink single-use plastic
  • Clean up your beach
  • Get involved! There is a lot of work to be done and we need YOUR help. Algalita offers individualized support for people interested in finding their place within the movement to combat plastic pollution. Contact us today!

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