Can this charismatic collector of floating debris stop the avalanche of ocean pollution flowing down Ballona Creek?

By Gary Walker

Mr. Trash Wheel has been plucking runoff debris from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor since 2014, and a similar device might improve the effectiveness of boom nets on Ballona Creek in Playa del Rey


Boom nets on Ballona Creek in Playa del Rey
Photo by Peter Bennett

Floating trash nets along Ballona Creek and the L.A. River capture an estimated 200 tons of plastic bottles, Styrofoam containers and other urban runoff debris each year, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

What they miss is even more startling. Not only does smaller debris routinely slip through holes large enough for fish to pass through, the nets often fail during heavy storms — flushing avalanches of garbage into Santa Monica Bay and onto local beaches year after year, including this winter.

But now county officials are considering new solutions to prevent net failures and capture floating trash before it reaches the ocean, among them a renewable energy-powered water-wheel trash interceptor.

Playa del Rey community activist Lucy Han, one of the main organizers behind the nonprofit neighborhood beautification group Friends of the Jungle, has been lobbying the Department of Public Works to consider installing such a device on Ballona Creek, possibly above Lincoln Boulevard near Alla Road.

Han’s efforts have resulted in a Jan. 30 meeting between county engineers and Clearwater Mills, the environmental technology firm that created Mr. Trash Wheel, which has become a cultural icon of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor anthropomorphized by whimsical googly eyes.

Powered by solar panels and tidal currents, Mr. Trash Wheel intercepts litter that collects behind floating containment booms by scooping it onto a conveyor belt that deposits into a containment barge.

Since Mr. Trash Wheel began operating in 2014 it has collected nearly 940 tons of trash and debris — including more than 560,000 plastic bottles, 400,000 grocery bags and 10 million cigarette butts, according to the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative.

“The net is not effective,” said Han, who isn’t a biologist or environmental expert, just a neighborhood organizer tired of seeing trash from Ballona Creek wash up on Toes Beach and collect in Del Rey Lagoon.

Mr. Trash Wheel, on the other hand, “feels like a no-brainer because of the amount of trash that it can take in,” she said.

The evaluation, decision-making and funding process to install a trash wheel on Ballona Creek would still have a long way to go, but county public works officials are actively pursuing solutions to their trash net problem.

After each storm, county maintenance crews have to manually remove trash from behind the Ballona Creek net and along the concrete banks of the channel.

And attempts to improve the trash net itself haven’t been very successful.

“Minor adjustments to the existing trash net have not significantly improved its performance. Short-term options are limited during this rain season,” acknowledged county public works strategic communications manager Kerjon Lee.

“Los Angeles County Public Works is actively evaluating solutions to improve trash capture at the outlet of Ballona Creek. Alternatives being evaluated include mechanical trash excluders, such as a trash wheel,” Lee said.

Jayme Wilson, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn’s economic development deputy, saw the trash wheel when he was in Baltimore three years ago on a family trip and came away impressed.

“I think it’s a potential part of the solution in storm water capture,” he said.

Dr. Edith Read, a local biologist who manages the freshwater marshlands of the Ballona Wetlands, is not connected with the Mr. Trash Wheel campaign but believes ideas for improving debris capture in Ballona Creek deserve public attention.

“Given the urbanized watershed in the area, Ballona Creek is certainly one the more significant conveyance channels on the Westside,” she said.  “I think in some respects we’ve become complacent about some of these storm water capture systems. The fact is that they have to be maintained constantly.”

Last year the Newport Beach City Council won a $1.7-million state grant to purchase a Mr. Trash Wheel and place it in the city’s upper harbor, about 200 feet upstream from the Jamboree Road Bridge, where it would intercept debris flowing down San Diego Creek from inland Orange County.

Part of Mr. Trash Wheel’s charm is that it also raises public awareness about limiting source pollution that winds up as urban runoff, said Adam Lindquist, director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative in Baltimore. The nonprofit organization worked on the campaign to bring Mr. Trash Wheel to the harbor as part of Charm City’s broader initiatives to revitalize the city’s downtown and harbor areas.

“A big part of it is not just intercepting trash: it’s getting people engaged and becoming more aware of how important it is to stop trash at its source before it gets to the river or ocean,” Lindquist said. “If you wait until trash gets out into the water, the cost of cleaning it up skyrockets.”

Mr. Trash Wheel was built with $720,000 in public and private funds, and Baltimore’s municipal government pays for half of its roughly $200,000 annual operating expenses.

Lindquist says the device is paying off not just in the staggering volume of trash removed from local waterways, but also in terms of raising public awareness. Its image adorns souvenir clothing and coffee mugs, and  children have been known to dress as Mr. Trash Wheel for Halloween.

“The fandom is what’s really fun about Mr. Trash Wheel,” he said.

Bruce Reznik, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Los Angeles Waterkeeper, says his organization isn’t familiar with efforts to bring a trash wheel to Ballona Creek and would need more information about any potential impacts to wildlife before weighing in about it.

“We recognize the need for a failsafe when prevention efforts don’t work,” said Reznik, but “reducing waste before it gets to a storm drain, the street or the ocean is always the best goal. What worries me sometimes is that there is a focus on downstream solutions and people forget about how important it is to stop pollution at its source, such as having more trash bins, better management of storm drains and more street sweeping. …The more that we can emphasize source control the better.”