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One look at the Los Angeles River during a storm reminds residents of the sheer amount of trash that ends up in the river. Styrofoam packaging, soda cans, candy wrappers, even shopping carts are regular sights in the riverbed. Small things in and of itself, but it adds up to the number one source of pollution in Southern California.
For a quarter of a century, volunteers organized by the Friends of the Los Angeles River have helped clean up this mess. This year, in celebration of this milestone, FoLAR is kicking off three Saturdays of clean-ups in thirteen sites, all along the 51-mile river.
"At FoLAR, we have a handful of staff. It's beautiful to see thousands of people mobilized at the sites, but we really wanted a way to connect and converse with them even more," explained Shelly Backlar, Director for Education Programs at the non-profit.
By breaking up the clean-up into three Saturdays on the soft-bottomed portions of the river, FoLAR is able to establish better connections with its volunteers. More of their staff becomes available at each site, instead of spreading them too thin across one weekend. Volunteers also get the opportunity to visit other sites along the river they might have missed when everything happens at the same time.
Though the event brings together concerned citizens, it also gives them an opportunity to celebrate. "It almost has a community block party feel," says Backlar. Apart from a safety talk, volunteers will be given a brief overview of the types of wildlife that can be found along the river.
Volunteers will be engaged in a bit of citizen science as well. Trash from the rivers will be sorted according to type, weighed and then recorded at each site as part of a public trash report being compiled by the non-profit.
According to Backlar, the trash sorting efforts started in 2004. It was meant to help people confront the amount of trash that gets into the city's waterways. "There was so much plastic in the river then. The trash sort really allows people to see that what they do in their neighborhoods, no matter how far they are, affects the river."
In 2011, FoLAR found that plastic film was the most prevalent type of trash found in the river by volume, especially single-use plastic bags and snack and candy packaging. Metal, cloth and molded plastic were also common. In 2012 and 2013, snack and candy wrappers pushed plastic film out of the top spot.
By doing yearly trash sorts, FoLAR is able to capture long-term trends of trash in the Los Angeles River. The non-profit is still currently working on a more comprehensive report that takes in data from the past three years in consideration; Backlar says the trash situation in the Los Angeles River is getting better. "Since we started doing the clean up, the weight of the trash has gone down," said Backlar.
FoLAR is now looking to compare their data to the one's collected by each city, who are mandated to monitor trash levels in the river.
More than science and duty, however, Backlar says the most fulfilling part of participation is the rare opportunity to get into the riverbed. "It's a way of communing with the river."
River Clean-up starts this Saturday, from 9 a.m. to noon each day. More details here.
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