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      Department of Public Works Bureau of Sanitation

“Honey, that woman just threw her cigarette butt in the gutter!”

“Hey, those kids just threw trash out their car window!”

“Ma’am, would you like paper or plastic? Oh, plastic, please”

Anyone who drives around Los Angeles will, unfortunately, see the trash challenge facing the region. Los Angeles is a municipality comprised of 3.8 million residents, 465 square miles and 1,200 miles of storm drains. These storm drains, the region’s natural streams and rivers of days long gone, were concreted during the mid-20th century for flood control purposes.

Today, these storm drains crisscross the city underground, funneling rain water and urban runoff from neighborhoods to local bays. Unfortunately, the water flowing through these storm drains also carries with it trash from city streets. Fast food containers, Styrofoam cups and plastic bags are just a few examples of the tons of trash that flow to LA’s beaches on an annual basis through regional waterways.

The City of Los Angeles’ Tackling Trash Program seeks to reduce the amount of trash entering the storm drain system from city streets.

In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek Trash Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which established limits on the amount of trash allowed in those two water bodies. While some Southern California municipalities chose to challenge these new federal mandates, Los Angeles embraced the opportunity to clean-up its waterways. The City of Los Angeles implemented a two-pronged approach, focusing on institutional and structural measures with the objective of reducing trash, cleaning communities and meeting the required deadlines.

The institutional measures focused on several elements, such as, public outreach based on mass media advertising, community clean-ups, partnering with retail stores to get the anti-litter message to residents, targeted street sweeping, catch basin cleaning, and concentrated enforcement. The structural measures focused on evaluating and installing the best available best management practices (BMPs) to capture trash flowing into regional waterways.

On September 30, 2006, the City of Los Angeles exceeded the required 20% reduction and proudly reported a 26% reduction in the amount of trash flowing to Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek.


When the Environmental Protection Agency adopted the Los Angeles (LA) River and Ballona Creek Trash Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), it stated that Southern California cities are mandated to reduce their trash contribution to these water bodies by 10% each year for a period of 10 years with the goal of zero trash in these two waterways by 2015. The first milestone was a 20% trash reduction in the LA River and Ballona Creek by September 30, 2006. While some Southern California municipalities chose to challenge these new federal mandates, Los Angeles embraced the opportunity to clean-up its waterways.

The City of Los Angeles, Bureau of Sanitation, Watershed Protection Division (WPD) implemented a two-pronged approach to protect the beneficial use of the City’s waterbodies. The approach focused on implementing institutional type controls, such as public education, street sweeping, and enforcement, as well as installing structural trash control devices in the storm drain system with the objective of reducing trash, cleaning communities and meeting the TMDL’s required deadlines.

Implementation Strategy

In early 2002, WPD completed a study entitled “High Trash Generation Areas and Control Measures,” which identified the spatial distribution of trash in the LA River and Ballona Creek watersheds. The study examined the amount of trash collected in Los Angeles for both watersheds from 1999 to 2001. In 2004, two additional years of data were added into the analysis, reinforcing the initial findings. The data resulted in the identification of three distinct trash generation areas (low, medium and high) within the City of Los Angeles (click on image shown at right).

The Stormwater Program worked in conjunction with the City’s Catch Basin Cleaning crews on compiling data on High Trash Generation Areas throughout the city.

The high trash generating areas were found to be in the Civic Center of Los Angeles and the communities of South Los Angeles, Koreatown, Chinatown, East Los Angeles, portions of Hollywood and Silverlake. The medium trash areas included the communities of Eagle Rock, Highland Park and Jefferson Park, and the low trash areas included most of the San Fernando Valley, a large portion of West Los Angeles and the Harbor area.

The City concluded that targeting the high trash generating areas first would result in a large reduction in trash discharged into both the LA River and Ballona Creek. The City focused both its institutional and structural control measures on those areas for maximum results

Institutional Measures

Through its current institutional measures and operations, the City discourages the generation of illicit trash and collects the bulk of this trash from streets, sidewalks, alleys, and catch basins. The institutional BMPs that the City employs are described below:


The public education program identified five activities to outreach to the public regarding trash abatement:

Point-of-Purchase Campaign

The City developed partnerships with retail businesses (coffee shops, cafés, hamburger stands and sandwich shops) within the high trash generating areas of Los Angeles whose customers may generate trash. The City developed a database of coffee shops, cafés, hamburger stands, and sandwich shops in the high trash areas. The next step was to visit the businesses in the high trash areas. City staff made a total of 215 visits to 193 retail stores, placing posters and educating staff members who then became spokespersons for the City regarding trash prevention.

Mass Media Advertising

The City focused its efforts on billboards, bus advertisements, bus benches and print advertisements in community papers in the high trash generating areas. A summary of the mass media advertising that was conducted includes:

LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa actively participated in the City’s Stormwater Program efforts.

Billboard Advertisements – Placed 200 billboards (100 English and 100 Spanish with the message “Drop Your Fast Food Wrapper In A Can Not the Curb” making an estimated 21,873,600 impressions on the general public.

Bus Advertisements – Placed bilingual (English and Spanish) advertisements in the interiors of 2,530 buses with the message “Litter: Can It!” making an estimated 9,721,496 impressions on the general public

Transit Shelter Advertisements – Posted bilingual (English and Spanish) advertisements on 200 bus benches with the message “Litter: Can It!” making an estimated 4,860,748 impressions on the general public

Community Newspapers – Placed 66 advertisements (45 English, 18 Spanish and 3 Korean) in 12 publications (9 English, 2 Spanish, 1 Korean) with the messages “Drop Your Cup In the Garbage Not The Gutter” and “Drop Your Fast Food Wrapper In A Can Not The Curb” making an estimated 5,885,000 impressions on the general public

High School Newspapers – Placed 25 advertisements in high school newspapers with the message “Drop Your Fast Food Wrapper In a Can Not the Curb” making an estimated 67,000 impressions on high school students

Elementary School Outreach

The City of Los Angeles partnered with the non-profits The Malibu Foundation For Environmental Education and TreePeople to educate elementary-aged school students. Over a two-year period, The Malibu Foundation for Environmental Education presented assemblies to 279 schools, educating 132,445 students. During this same period, TreePeople educated 2,614 students in 69 schools through their Eco-Tour program, an interactive tour of their facility in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Ocean Day

Annually, the City of Los Angeles partners with the California Coastal Commission and the Malibu Foundation for Environmental Education to present Ocean Day, a day for elementary-aged students to clean Dockweiler Beach and participate in an aerial message in the sand, a photo of which is then sent to Los Angeles media. On average, 5,000 students participate in Ocean Day, removing 2.5 tons of trash from the beach. The message of the students’ beach clean-up annually reaches 2,000,000 LA residents.

Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) Outreach

Business improvement districts have been established through Los Angeles to improve the quality of life for businesses and address concerns and issues facing communities. The City’s Stormwater Program partnered with twelve business improvement districts Citywide to coordinate trash outreach efforts. A mailing of 2,000 educational posters was mailed to 10 business improvement districts for distribution. A business advertorial was developed to educate business owners on the best management practices they could implement to reduce trash and pollution in their business districts. An article based on the advertorial was e-mailed to 12 BIDs for inclusion in their newsletters.

Street Sweeping

Through the use of motorized sweepers the Bureau of Street Services removes much of the trash found on City streets, alleys, and municipal parking lots. Street sweeping frequency varies from daily in the most trash filled streets and alleys to monthly in the least urbanized portions of the City. The high trash areas of the City contained many of the special street and alley cleaning routes identified to pose a health and safety hazard and were cleaned more rigorously on a daily basis – this included the collection of trash receptacles, thus preventing overflow of trash onto city streets.

Wastewater Collection Crews clean out over 34,000 catch basins annually and aggressively target those in High Trash Generation Areas.

Catch Basin Cleaning

This activity is performed by the Wastewater Collection Services Division of the Bureau of Sanitation. At a minimum, the catch basin cleaning schedule complies with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Municipal Stormwater Permit requirements, which range from once to four times per year depending on the catch basin location. Scheduling of the cleaning of catch basins identified in the high trash generating areas was altered to take place prior to the start of the rainy season and on a more frequent basis during the rainy season to address the trash problem.

Anti-Littering Enforcement

Current statutes in the LA Municipal Code forbid littering in the City of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Police Department is the leading entity in enforcing the Municipal Code requirement; however, other entities such as the Departments of Public Works and Recreation and Parks also deploy inspectors to prevent littering along City streets or in public parks, respectively.


Utilizing structural solutions was the second prong of the City’s strategic approach. Los Angeles has more than 35,000 catch basins (the curbside openings to the storm drain system) within the LA River and Ballona Creek watersheds. Each catch basin’s role is to quickly divert rainwater away from city streets. Unfortunately, they also play the unintentional role of funneling trash into the storm drain system and into our regional waterways and bays.

Structural Best Management Practices (BMPs) Assessment

In the development of the City’s implementation strategy, a working group of several City departments conducted a number of pilot studies to evaluate the effectiveness of different structural BMPs. The departments installed and evaluated various solutions including end-of-the-pipe trash systems, catch basin opening screen covers, catch basin inserts, netting systems, and hydrodynamic separator devices.

After careful evaluation, the City concluded that utilizing end-of-the-pipe solutions solely would be difficult due to field conditions and maintenance issues and that it would be more effective to focus on retrofitting its catch basins with either catch basin inserts or screen covers. The City implemented the installation of these structural BMPs in two phases. Under the initial phase, the first group of BMPs was placed in the high trash generating areas of the City. The second phase targeted the medium and low trash generating areas of Los Angeles. The following is a description of the various BMPs that have been installed throughout Los Angeles:

Styrofoam, plastic bags, and other mass-produced products continue to be a problem although the City has recently implemented a plastic bag recycling program.

Hydrodynamic Separators  — are considered full capture systems and designed to treat the one-year, one-hour storm. The City has installed three units to date.

Netting Systems — devices that include a net contained within a box structure retrofitted into the existing storm drain line. The floatable trash is trapped in the disposable nets. The City installed these netting systems in the high and medium trash generating areas of Los Angeles. The City has installed 13 units.

Low-Flow Diversions (LFDs) — a system that routes dry-weather urban runoff from the storm drain system into the sanitary sewer system. LFDs reduce all types of pollutants, including trash, since the runoff is treated at a wastewater treatment facility. The City has installed nine units, including one LFD system in the downtown high trash generating area.

Catch Basin Inserts — are installed inside a catch basin and are designed to trap all trash greater than five mm in size. They are designed to maximize a catch basin’s trash capture volume and provide a flow bypass to prevent flooding. To date, 7,400 catch basin inserts have been installed in the City’s trash generating areas.

Catch Basin Opening Screen Covers  — consist of a coarse screen placed at the openings of the catch basin to prevent trash from entering the storm drain system. The screen covers have been installed in combination with the catch basin inserts, or independently, in the trash generating areas. A total of 12,100 catch basin opening screen covers have been installed in Los Angeles

Following the evaluation of the existing City storm drain system and assessment of the different structural trash control devices deployed within the City over the course of the past four years, the City concluded that implementation of either inserts with five millimeter openings and/or catch basin opening screen covers at all catch basins within the City is the most feasible, practical and cost effective approach for compliance with the TMDL.

The Future

At the inception of the program, the implementation of the trash TMDL in the City was projected to cost well over $1 billion in capital costs to achieve compliance. Through the City’s leadership and use of its strategic two-pronged approach, paralleled with a commitment to invest in piloting new products and BMPs, the capital costs are now projected to cost approximately $70 million to achieve compliance. In addition, the City will achieve compliance several years before the actual mandated compliance deadlines. The City’s program has proven to be so practical and effective, that other cities in the County of Los Angeles have modeled their implementation strategy after Los Angeles’ program.

Tackling and solving the trash challenge in Los Angeles has been and will continue to be a top priority for the City’s Stormwater Program. With an ongoing and dynamic trash reduction program, the City will not only achieve TMDL compliance, but will create a safer and healthier environment for all who call Los Angeles their home.