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Environment & Science

The LA River was trashed — or, how I learned to clear 20 tons of garbage in 2.5 hours




Lidia Gomez picks up trash in between a couple of shopping carts that are lodged into the riverbank.  Photo credit: Audrey Alden
Lidia Gomez picks up trash in between a couple of shopping carts that are lodged into the riverbank. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

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Trash hangs like Christmas decorations on the trees lining the Los Angeles River. Shopping carts, plastic bags and cigarette butts litter the banks, but not for long.

Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) kicked off its 29th annual river cleanup on Saturday. For three weekends in April, FoLAR will lead river cleanups along the entire 51-mile stretch of the river. This past weekend, volunteers focused on the Sepulveda Basin Recreational Area in Van Nuys.

Trash hangs from trees like Christmas decorations along the banks of the river. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
Trash hangs from trees like Christmas decorations along the banks of the river. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

“There's lots of rocks and it's kind of gross, but it's good helping the earth,” said Beatrix Farber, an 8-year-old Girl Scout here with her troop. Her dad, Lee Farber, has lived in L.A. for 25 years, but this is his first time on the river and he’s shocked by how much trash there is.

A crowd gathers to listen to a safety talk before they enter the riverbed. Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) partnered with the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) to help educate volunteers on how to interact safely with homeless residents and their waste. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
A crowd gathers to listen to a safety talk before they enter the riverbed. Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) partnered with the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) to help educate volunteers on how to interact safely with homeless residents and their waste. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

His family is one of around 900 people who showed up Saturday morning. Teenagers, senior citizens, community groups and just about every age and demographic were represented from all over L.A. and the surrounding areas to pick up trash. FoLAR's Executive Director Marissa Christiansen said they find stuff you'd never expect to be in a river:

“We find everything. Somebody just told me that the last cleanup they came to they pulled a motorcycle out of the sand! We find a lot of shopping carts, but we also find the biggest perpetrator is single serving food packaging, so a lot of chip bags, a lot of straws, things like that.”

A shopping cart volunteers pulled from the river. These carts are one of the most common things volunteers find in the riverbank. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
A shopping cart volunteers pulled from the river. These carts are one of the most common things volunteers find in the riverbank. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

Second district City Councilmember Paul Kerkorian is a native Angeleno who’s been participating in river cleanups for around a decade:

“What we are picking up here is litter that somebody left on the street 15 miles from here, far from any waterways. People don't fully understand that litter on the street is going to end up in this river, and from this river its gonna end up in the ocean.”

District 2 Councilman Paul Krekorian and a staffer show some of the trash they’ve collected. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
District 2 Councilman Paul Krekorian and a staffer show some of the trash they’ve collected. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

Besides litter from the street that's washed by the rain into the river, homeless encampments are another source of trash. Tammy Watkins and her husband Mike spent most of the morning cleaning up garbage from an abandoned camp:

“We found everything from empty prescription bottles, to baby shoes and lots of shopping bags because the homeless use buckets and plastic bags to defecate in and you find that up and down the river…  It seems like most of the trash we find along the river is mostly because homelessness is such an epidemic.”

Piles and piles of garbage were collected from an abandoned homeless camp on the riverbank. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
Piles and piles of garbage were collected from an abandoned homeless camp on the riverbank. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

This year FoLAR partnered with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) to help do outreach to the homeless before the cleanup.

Garbage collected from an abandoned homeless camp on the riverbank. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
Garbage collected from an abandoned homeless camp on the riverbank. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

 They're also educating volunteers on how to interact with residents of the encampments and how to properly deal with their waste.

Volunteers clean up an abandoned homeless camp. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
Volunteers clean up an abandoned homeless camp. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

 Clearing garbage and litter from the river isn't the easiest job, but there's a palpable sense of camaraderie and a band to brighten the mood.

A band plays as the event kicks off. During the event they roam around the riverbank playing for volunteers. From left to right: Jacob Minter, Will Splinter, Wyatt Garrett, Winne Miles and Kory Adams. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
A band plays as the event kicks off. During the event they roam around the riverbank playing for volunteers. From left to right: Jacob Minter, Will Splinter, Wyatt Garrett, Winne Miles and Kory Adams. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

FoLAR, along with a coalition of activists, are fighting to revitalize river communities, beautify its banks, and transform them into green recreational spaces. Today, a few places give a glimpse of what that would be like. Large trees hang over the river creating cool shade on this hot morning. The Girl Scout troop found a large frog and there are tons of birds and other wildlife along the riverbanks.

Beatrix Farber shows off a frog she and the other Girl Scouts found in the river; the frog is well hidden in the twigs. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
Beatrix Farber shows off a frog she and the other Girl Scouts found in the river; the frog is well hidden in the twigs. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

Thanks to the volunteers, by midday there's a lot less trash. FOLAR’s Executive Director Marissa Christiansen was pleased with how the event went:

“Lots of trash, lots of people, lots of smiling faces…nice and sweaty, I think it was a huge success!”

Volunteers pull garbage from the riverbank. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
Volunteers pull garbage from the riverbank. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

In about two and a half hours, they removed an estimated 20 to 25 tons of trash. For FoLAR, the cleanup isn't only about getting rid of garbage. It’s about getting people to care about the environment and feel invested in the river. 

Rose Kwok Olivaras is a Physical Education teacher who was there with some of her students. She participates in Students Run LA and they often jog with her around this very park:

“It's a way for them to understand what they put into the community is what they get out of it…and for people to enjoy it for generations, people have to take care of what we have."

The stretch of the river volunteers spent the morning cleaning in the Sepulveda Basin had a lot less trash by the end of the clean up. Photo credit: Audrey Alden
The stretch of the river volunteers spent the morning cleaning in the Sepulveda Basin had a lot less trash by the end of the clean up. Photo credit: Audrey Alden

FoLAR is doing river clean ups every Saturday this month at different sites along the 51 miles of the L.A. River. You can sign up or get more information about the river cleanups on their website: folar.org.