The atmospheric river storm hitting California this week presents a test for an experimental waste-capturing system that’s intended to keep plastic bottles, diapers and other trash from flowing into the Pacific. It has even captured a couch.
The solar-powered system, designed to work mostly autonomously, was introduced in October at the mouth of Ballona Creek near Playa del Rey.
The Ballona Creek Trash Interceptor 007, one of several such machines created by Dutch nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup, is the first such device installed in the US; 10 others have been deployed globally — eight are operational, and two are down for maintenance — and an additional 10 are set to be deployed this year.
A November 2019 motion put before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors described the partnership with Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit, as a pilot project spanning two storm seasons between October and April.
Ocean Cleanup is not being compensated, but the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works is staffing the trash interceptor at taxpayer expense, via Los Angeles County’s flood fund with support from contractor Ocean Blue.
During the pilot, the interceptor is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, a law requiring evaluation of environmental impacts for development or land use decisions.
After April 2024, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District will have the option to take control of the interceptor for no charge, and “further environmental review may be required,” the motion says.
The streets of Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, parts of Los Angeles, Culver City and unincorporated Los Angeles County “all feed into a storm drain network that moves water from the roadway into the storm drain system and out through Ballona Creek,” Los Angeles County Department of Public Works spokesman Kerjon Lee told The Times.
The nine-mile creek’s watershed spans an area containing some 1.5 million residents, Lee said. The interceptor collects floating debris a few hundred yards before it would be released from the creek, and crews can then send the garbage to a landfill.
About a mile upstream of the interceptor is the Lincoln trash boom, a net that has been in place for years to catch debris. “Removing the trash is a very manual process” at the boom, Lee said.
The Lincoln trash boom requires workers with backhoes, shovels and other tools to collect trash that accumulates. The net is also designed to break away when the load is too large instead of ripping, meaning that — prior to the interceptor — heavy rain could cause all the built-up trash to be flushed straight out to the ocean.
“Ballona Creek is a straight, long concrete channel,” said communications director Joost Dubois of Ocean Cleanup. Current rains will test “how the system holds up” with increased velocity, as Interceptor 007 faces the fastest water of any system they’ve deployed: “It’s an extreme test for us,” he said.
A video posted by nonprofit claimed that during the first major rain event of the season, in November, the system collected more than 35,000 pounds of waste.
The much larger rainstorms around the new year brought 2 to 5 inches of rain in the Los Angeles area, and this week’s could bring an additional 2 to 4 inches, according to the National Weather Service. These storms mean more runoff through Ballona Creek and potentially more debris.
Around Dec. 28, the interceptor lost power due to a technical issue with its solar panels, the county website for the project said. “Operational challenges are not entirely unexpected when deploying an innovative pilot project like the Interceptor 007,” the website said.
Lee said that overcast weather caused issues with charging the interceptor’s solar batteries, so in preparation for recent rain, workers ran a gas generator to charge them. Dubois said operators hoped to learn from hiccups encountered in the interceptor’s first season.
Ocean Cleanup began with a viral TedX talk and a subsequent crowdfunding campaign that raised millions in donations. Since 2019, the project has deployed machines in an attempt to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California, and to stop trash carried by rivers from entering the oceans.
Their goal is to remove 90% of all floating plastic in the world’s oceans by 2040. Most of the project’s financing comes from private donors, said Dubois, and corporate sponsors include shipping giant Maersk and Coca-Cola.