Littering is having monumental effects on the beaches, parks, and roadways all across Orange County.

Littering is more than just an aesthetic nuisance. It is also harmful to the health of birds, animals and residents.

Editor’s Note: This story series was produced by Chapman University journalism students working with the VOC Collegiate News Service.

The idea for the series was sparked by the fall oil spill off Orange County’s coast. But it also goes further — examining the seen and unseen pollution across the local environment — in drinking water sources, ocean waters, on land and in the air. We hope with this series to give residents balanced and informative stories that people can use to be empowered in the community. If you have questions, comments and story ideas please contact Sonya Quick, digital editor at Voice of OC and Chapman adjunct professor.

According to the California Government Code, litter is defined as all improperly discarded waste material, including convenience food, beverage, and other product packages or containers thrown or deposited on the lands and waters.

Coastal Areas

Wetlands such as the Talbert Marsh and the Bolsa Chica Wetlands are prime examples of areas where wildlife are often impacted by litter and other pollution found on both land and sea.

The recent oil spill off the coast of Orange County impacted these protected areas and contributed to the pollution that environmental organizations work to combat. 

The Bolsa Chica Conservancy is one such non-profit organization that provides services in environmental restoration and facilitates community involvement and education in ecological sciences. They specifically focus on protecting the habitat and wildlife in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands which, like other wetlands in the area, faced significant risks as a result of the oil spill.

According to Kenneth Perez, volunteer program coordinator for Bolsa Chica Conservancy, the majority of pollution found at the wetlands currently and prior to the oil spill are trash and other debris which are mostly plastics and microplastics, but he also recalls sightings of larger items such as car bumpers and bed frames. 

The conservancy hosts twice-monthly public volunteer service days, though they have limited access to the water’s edge during breeding and nesting season from March to October.

This restriction does not greatly impact their efforts, however, as Perez specifies, outside of the aforementioned litter from the beach, they rarely see land pollution in the wetlands and are far more affected by the physical pollution that comes directly from the water.

Because of this, the organization has a vested interest in beach pollution specifically as it has more direct ties to pollution in wetlands ecosystems, as they are often physically connected and thus share the impacts of pollution. 

“That being said, land pollution is still an issue,” Perez said.

“Most people are mindful of throwing away their trash…but if it’s not thrown away safely and responsibly, it can become an issue. If trash receptacles aren’t properly maintained, they can overflow and excess debris can escape via winds and into habitats.” 

Kenneth Perez, volunteer program coordinator for Bolsa Chica Conservancy

These habits do include beaches, which exemplifies the connecting nature of litter and other forms of pollution, land and otherwise. As Perez said, “A cleaner wetland leads to a cleaner beach, and vice versa.”

Along with impacting the environment and wildlife, beach pollution also poses a risk to human health. 

According to a report by the California State Water Resources Board, there is a higher chance for skin contact with trash as people play in the sand, lie directly on it, and walk barefoot. Litter such as shards of glass or metal, syringes, and remains of hygiene-related items have the potential to cause physical injury and infections. 

The report also states that other litter, such as improperly disposed diapers and medical waste, have the potential to carry bacteria or viruses that can be transmitted to humans. Larger items, such as car bumpers or tires, have the potential to facilitate mosquito production and the associated diseases they carry with them, such as West Nile virus. 

Tower 74, Newport Beach at mouth of Santa Ana River. Thousand of microplastics are said to be picked up here annually by local cleanup organizers. Credit: Surfrider Newport Beach

The report also references a 2001 study conducted in Orange County that estimated “approximately 106 million items, weighing 12 metric tons” occur on the county’s beaches. The most prevalent items were forms of plastics (pre-production plastic pellets, foamed plastics, and hard plastics) which took up over half the total weight. Cigarette butts were the fourth most abundant after the three forms of plastics, but accounted for only 1% of the total weight.

Parks

Aside from beaches, parks are another example of highly-frequented areas used for human recreation and habitats for wildlife. Akin to beaches, parks are another hot spot for littering.

Orange County Parks is an organization that manages the multiple acres of land and facilities throughout the county, with a mission to “enhance OC Parks’ natural and cultural resources for recreation, education, and exploration.”

Black Star Canyon. UNSPLASH

One of these areas is Irvine Ranch Open Space, which is an over 20,000 acre habitat preserve that includes both Black Star Canyon and Limestone Canyon.

According to Marisa O’Neil, spokesperson for OC Parks, most of the trails in Irvine Ranch Open Space can only be accessed by the public if a docent or guide takes them on one of the scheduled wilderness access days. 

This regulation is meant to limit the number of people passing through to comply with the environmental protections in place on the preserve. Limestone Canyon is one of these managed access areas, as members of the public have to register to recreate there. Conversely, Black Star Canyon is one of the few areas that is not managed access and is open to the public at any time.

According to O’Neil, the difference between the amount of accumulated trash in areas like Limestone versus areas like Black Star is startling.

Managed access areas like Limestone have virtually no trash and require minimal maintenance when it comes to litter management and cleanup, whereas areas like Black Star require constant trash picking and litter removal at regular intervals.

The cleanup efforts are shared between OC Parks staff and volunteers, as well as the public. While she is not able to provide statistics, O’Neil does attribute the majority of items found to be dog waste bags and food and drink containers. 

There have also been occasional road-side dumpings leading to the Black Star trailhead, but those are reported to and under the jurisdiction of OC Public Works, another organization that provides various services to the county, though according to Environmental Resources Technician, Andrew McGuire, their Environmental Resources services focus primarily on water quality and agricultural pest management.

Story written by Tisha Lardizabal. Edited by Cienna Roget. Story graphic by Nolan Thompson.

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