How the coronavirus is changing L.A. County’s waste stream

A discarded mask on the beach as people with boogie board stand in the background
A discarded face covering is seen on the beach in Santa Monica on Friday. Masks and gloves have made the top 10 list for trash found on area beaches.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The coronavirus outbreak has indelibly imprinted itself on life in Los Angeles — down to the composition of trash washing up on its beaches.

Volunteers at L.A. County’s largest annual cleanup event recently collected nearly 750 pieces of disposable personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, said Shelley Luce, president and chief executive of Heal the Bay. The nonprofit has for the last 30 years coordinated the L.A. County portion of Coastal Cleanup Day, which was this year reimagined as Coastal Cleanup Month because of the pandemic.

“Coastal Cleanup Month was just this past month of September,” Luce said, “and we’ve all been noticing the littered PPE since April, basically.”

It was the first time the cleanup effort tracked the presence of single-use PPE in L.A. County’s waste stream, and some were surprised to find it was the 10th-most common category of trash, surpassing items such as glass bottles.

Volunteers also found evidence that people are relying heavily on takeout and delivery services amid the pandemic. They collected 2,772 disposable foodware accessories such as utensils, straws and lids, which came in fourth on the list of most common items, and 1,366 takeout containers, which were fifth.

“I do believe we’re all doing more takeout, which is great because it’s supporting local restaurants and it’s the safer way to eat at restaurants,” Luce said. “However, if we don’t get those food containers in the trash, they end up as litter on our streets and in our rivers and oceans.”


A discarded black mask sits among shells and kelp on the beach
A discarded face covering is seen on the beach in Venice on Friday during the annual coastal cleanup done by thousands of volunteers.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

In fact, aside from PPE and cigarette butts, the top 10 most commonly found trash items were all food- or drink-related — food wrappers (3,717), bottle caps (3,002), plastic bottles (1,107), plastic grocery bags (1,040), plastic cups and plates (889) and beverage cans (762), Luce said.

Plastic food litter was also found in large quantities in years past, Luce said, although volunteers had reported finding fewer bags since a statewide ban on large grocery stores offering single-use plastic bags was enacted in 2014.

The result of this year’s cleanup raised concern that the pandemic has worsened people’s “single-use habits,” which could lead to an influx of plastic waste that threatens to undo some of the progress L.A. County has made in the area, she said.

“I think it has the potential to result in an increase in some kinds of plastic trash, like the masks and gloves, like the takeout containers,” Luce said. “And I think it’s up to all of us to make sure we don’t compound the bad effects of COVID by allowing this plastic to become litter in our environment.”

Some environmentalists were alarmed by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s move in April to temporarily suspend California’s single-use plastic bag ban amid concerns that grocery clerks could be at risk for exposure to the coronavirus if shoppers were required to supply their own reusable bags. The suspension expired after 60 days, but with so many stores and customers stretched across such a large state, some confusion remains, Luce said.


“We want people to know you can once again bring your own bag to the grocery store and bag your own groceries and choose the safe and sustainable path of reusable bags,” she said.

Consumers can also help reduce plastic waste by choosing takeout restaurants that use biodegradable packaging such as cardboard or recyclable materials such as aluminum foil, and by electing to wear cloth masks instead of the disposable ones, Luce said.

A seagull with trash in its beak
A seagull carries a discarded box of Goldfish on the beach in Santa Monica on Friday.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

At least 2,300 volunteers in L.A. County participated in this year’s cleanup month, collecting more than 40,000 pieces of trash.

Unlike in years past, when tens of thousands of people came out for one day, the event was decentralized. Those who wished to participate were instructed to pick up waste close to home with a group of people who live in the same household. They were encouraged to download an app through which they could register their involvement and keep track of the different types of trash they found.

The data went into Heal the Bay’s long-standing database tracking the breakdown of trash that’s picked up around L.A. County, Luce said.

“We use that when advocating for better trash control and new laws to restrict that plastic packaging in California,” she said.


This year’s cleanup month also included a series of digital panels and webinars educating people about environmental issues, including a virtual education day at Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica aquarium that drew more than 400 L.A. Unified School District students to learn about plastic trash pollution.

“The fact that they were able to participate digitally was really fantastic,” Luce said. “We love to do that in person, and I can’t wait to have schoolkids back at our aquarium, but this was also a great way to get a lot of participation while keeping everybody safe.”