The Los Angeles River carries enough trash each year to fill the Rose Bowl two stories high, and despite efforts to corral some of it near the river mouth, most slips through to the ocean.
Moore adjusted a trawlnet to collect trash flowing downriver. At Moore’s signal, a crane operator lifted the net out of the water. Volunteers swarmed around the trawlnet, extracted the contents and loaded them into more than a dozen jars.
The jars were filled with plastic pellets the size and shape of pills. They come in all colors and are the raw material for a vast array of plastic products, from trash bags to medical devices.
About 100 billion pounds of pellets are produced every year and shipped to Los Angeles and other manufacturing centers. Huge numbers are spilled on the ground and swept by rainfall into gutters; down storm drains, creeks and rivers; and into the ocean.
From his river sampling, Moore estimated that 236 million pellets washed down the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers in three days’ time. Also known as “nurdles” or mermaid tears, they are the most widely seen plastic debris around the world. They have washed ashore as far away as Antarctica.
The pellets, like most types of plastic, are sponges for oily toxic chemicals that don’t readily dissolve in water, such as the pesticide DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Some pellets have been found to contain concentrations of these pollutants 1 million times greater than the levels found in surrounding water.
– From the Pulitzer Prize winning 2006 series: Altered Oceans © Los Angeles Times