Heal the Bay Blog

UPDATE: On May 8, Culver City’s City Council voted unanimously to adopt the single-use polystyrene ban. The ban goes into effect on November 8, 2017.

Earlier this week, the City of Culver City took the first step to join other local municipalities to pass a ban on two types of plastics which wreak havoc on marine life and are often used by food providers: polystyrene foam (commonly known as Stryofoam™) and oriented polystyrene.

Polystyrene foam is frequently used in take-out food packaging like cups and to-go boxes. It’s very lightweight and often flies away from trash bins and landfills. Oriented polystyrene (aka solid polystyrene) is used to make items like utensils, lids and food packaging.

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Polystyrene is seldom recycled due to its low quality and value, even though it’s designated with recycling code 6.

As a result, both types of polystyrene are ubiquitous at beach and watershed cleanups. According to Heal the Bay’s Marine Debris Database, our volunteers have picked up 504,832 Styrofoam™ items from beaches in L.A. County in the last 10 years. Banning these specific plastics is a big win for our coastal environment, especially considering Culver City is situated within the watershed of Ballona Creek and its downstream wetland habitat.

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Santa Monica started banning polystyrene ten years ago, and there continues to be talk of a ban on a state-wide level. But now Culver City has the bragging rights. This local municipality courageously chose to adopt some of the most stringent policies in the area by banning polystyrene coffee lids and straws from businesses as well.

The Culver City ban will begin on November 8, 2017, giving local businesses time to run through their current stock and prepare for the changes. According to the Culver City ordinance, no food provider shall use, distribute, or sell any single-use foam polystyrene or polystyrene service ware, denoted by recycling identification code 6 (PS).

In an additional and welcome caveat to the ordinance, Culver City businesses now must first ask if you want cutlery before simply throwing in plastic utensils with your take-out food. This idea works hand in hand with Heal the Bay’s Rethink the Drink campaign—coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

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Ballona Creek Renaissance lead the charge on this effort, with multiple Surfrider chapters reliably showing up in force over the nearly year-long endeavor. Our own Gnarly Beach Cleaner, Michael Doshi, was consistently there for the countless council and sustainability sub-committee meetings, while recent Heal the Bay Super Healer award winner, environmental science educator, and Team Marine leader at Santa Monica High School Benjamin Kay was present to seal the deal on Tuesday, April 11 right before midnight.

If there was one loser in this endeavor it would have to be impromptu beach parties.  Starting in November, “No [Culver] City business shall sell polystyrene coolers.” So in light of this, Heal the Bay recommends you simply do not procrastinate in the planning of those.

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Nov 4, 2016 – The syringe saga begins anew, writes staff scientist Steven Johnson.

If you live in Los Angeles, I have a new program for you to watch.

It’s a televised drama that contains high-stakes political maneuvering, involves people who unwittingly end up exposed to a dangerously sharp edge when you least expect it, and deals with a war of Five Kings.

What? You know the program I’m talking about? No, not Game of Thrones (but good guess) – something with a little less viewership and attention. It’s the sickening story of medical waste washing up on our local beaches. Let me quickly fill you in on last season, which ended in June 2016.

The “Five Kings” is a nickname that has been used for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. This locally governing body originally got their name due to a combination of power, homogeneity, and longevity of the members. Term limits were voted in by 64% of Los Angeles voters in 2002 and the Board itself has since morphed to better represent the diversity in the County. They still retain their tremendous power over a growing constituency, however, which is what makes them so fascinating. Each of the five supervisors represents almost two million Angelenos apiece, which is 2,000 times as many people as the original 1,000 citizens each supervisor represented in 1852. Today you have what the L.A. Times has argued are the five most powerful locally-elected individuals in the nation.

Now you know the characters and the setting. Let me set the stakes.

Early in 2016, Los Angeles County was set to have one of the most stringent used needles and unused prescription medication take-back programs in the country. At the time, only Alameda County (the county east of San Francisco containing Oakland, Berkeley, and Livermore) had such a program in place. This take-back program would ideally take the form of depositories (think mailbox/library book return) in Los Angeles drug stores and other convenient places. Heal the Bay believes that this ordinance will help keep used syringes off our shores and unused, yet abusable, medications out of our medicine cabinets and waterways. Currently, people either throw away syringes with other trash, where they can harm sanitation workers, or worse—flush them down the toilet. Heal the Bay became very aware of the danger of flushed syringes following last September’s Hyperion sewer spill, when hundreds of syringes, along with other medical waste, washed up on the shores around Dockweiler Beach. The take-back ordinance would be funded by the same people who profit from our prescription purchases in the first place: the pharmaceutical companies.

So what happened?

Over the course of spring 2016 the ordinance was delayed five times. This continued until the nail-biting season finale which took place this past June. On that fateful day, when Los Angeles County was supposed to confirm its comprehensive sharps and pharmaceutical take-back program, it was replaced in the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute by a watered-down public education campaign. The only similarity between the old ordinance and the new education campaign would be the funders – in both cases the pharmaceutical companies. They were asked to spend the next few months overseeing an education and outreach campaign and host quarterly take-back days.

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, who have become leaders on the Board in the effort to establish the ordinance, warned their fellow supervisors that the proposed education program would fall far short of the original ordinance in addressing the issues posed by sharps and pharmaceuticals, and assured their constituents that they had not seen the last of the ordinance itself.

Months have gone by and the results of the public education program and take-back events have been announced. According to County of Los Angeles Public Health, the pharmaceutical companies’ campaign objectives in summary “were not approved.” Of the mandated “Education and Outreach, Take-Back Events, and Outcome Measurement Plans,” there were only two categories (out of the 43 total graded requirements) where the Pharmaceutical Workgroup actually met the Supervisors’ set criteria: The campaign messages were in fact translated into Spanish, and that the group did indeed “establish a single website.” In every other category the Pharmaceutical Outreach and Education Team either partially or totally failed.

Last week, Supervisors Kuehl and Solis proved they were keeping their word and have been paying close attention to the program. That brings us up to speed to what’s happened up until yesterday’s season premiere.

The inadequacies of the outreach campaign were discussed at the Board’s Tuesday, November 1 hearing. After hearing L.A. County Public Health officials’ report, Supervisors Solis and Kuehl reiterated their stance that the whole effort was disappointing, with Solis stating that the industry’s efforts would receive an F grade if it were a student.

Sheila Kuehl stated that the people of L.A. County “should have an easy choice” of where to get rid of their old medications and used syringes. She went on to say that as Supervisors, “it’s our responsibility [to make it happen] and we will take it.”

But when the other Supervisors spoke, those in support of the ordinance looked completely miffed, as Supervisors Antonovich, Knabe, and Ridley-Thomas all seemed to think the ordinance needed more work—despite almost a year of efforts, delays, and postponements. At this point the well-crafted take-back ordinance, to the dismay of its many supporters, was put in a state of limbo. And that’s where our most recent episode ends.

Looking at the season ahead, there is hope for the take-back program. There will be two new characters destined to join our outnumbered heroes. Two of the five kings will be replaced by new, undetermined Supervisors, as the newly initiated term limits have taken effect. Even the two electoral races to replace Supervisors Antonovich and Knabe themselves have been quite dramatic so far.

There are rumors that the take-back program will be presented again in front of the newly vitalized board as soon as January 2017.

Hearings begin at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and are replayed each subsequent Wednesday night on television network KLCS at 10 p.m.

And unlike HBO, KLCS is free.

Stay tuned for updates in the coming months as the Syringe Saga continues…

May 27, 2016 — The city of Inglewood comes out in favor of a controversial ocean desalination plant proposed for the shoreline in El Segundo, reports staff scientist Steven Johnson.

After a lull in the action, the heated debate over building L.A.’s first full-fledged ocean desalination plant traveled to Inglewood.

West Basin Municipal Water District, which services 17 cities in Los Angeles County, is aiming to build a $300 million plant on the shore in El Segundo. The agency’s hope is to create a minimum of 20 million gallons of drinking water daily.

Heal the Bay and other environmental groups agree that the plant will ultimately be detrimental – it costs too much, uses too much energy and literally sucks life out of the ocean. There are better, underutilized options to augment local water supplies, such as increased water recycling from the nearby Hyperion Treatment Plant. Here are our top five reasons to be wary of desalination.

Pointing out the harm such a plant could do to the ocean, the city councils of both Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach voted unanimously to oppose the project earlier this year. These votes were unfortunately, and in Heal the Bay’s opinion, incorrectly, described at the Inglewood council meeting as motivated simply by a spirit of “Not in My Backyard!”.

To counter that energy, West Basin Board members and staff asked the Inglewood City Council to voice support for the project at a May 17 council meeting.

Public testimony was strongly in favor of the plant, with residents suggesting that the new plant would lead to lower costs for water and that water-deprived parks would be nourished once again. Both of these points run contrary to past experience with desalination plants and the reality of what the proposed plant can provide, however.  The recently built Carlsbad plant’s desalinated water is more expensive than any of San Diego’s other sources of water and West Basin’s proposed 20 million gallon a day plant will only account for 10% of the water supplied o its service area.

Ultimately, the Council voted unanimously to support the project, based on the following conditions suggested by West Basin staff:

  • The cost to customers will be cost-competitive to West Basin recycled water.
  • The energy involved will be carbon neutral.
  • And the protection to the environment will surpass the most stringent environmental regulations in the world.

These are noble goals, but it remains to be seen whether they are realistic. As noted above, recent history with desalination plants suggests otherwise, but Heal the Bay will continue to track development of the plant.

In this election season, here’s a quick primer on where cities stand in the debate over desal.

Running Desalination Score

City Councils in Favor:1

UPDATE: June 15, 2016 — The L.A. Board of Supervisors voted yesterday to approve a voluntary drug and syringe takeback program at local retailers—a far cry from the mandatory program advocated for by Heal the Bay and  a coalition of environmental, consumer advocacy, and public health groups.

 The latest:

After four postponements, the ordinance was finally heard. Sadly, we got pricked by some bad news. A sweeping, mandatory, County-wide initiative that would have required all pharmaceutical manufacturers to fund a program to accept unwanted and outdated medications, sharps, and syringes at local retailers, got seriously watered down by the Board of Supervisors. In a 3-0 vote, the Board agreed to Supervisor Antonovich’s last-minute declawing of the original, tougher proposal into an experimental, voluntary education and outreach campaign with quarterly take-back events.

Due to both its lack of accountability and concerns about the availability of funding, Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis abstained from voting. We’re grateful for their support of the original ordinance, and for listening and responding to the will of the public.

We also applaud L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who spoke out in favor of the original ordinance.

Special thanks are due to Heidi Sanborn of the National Stewardship Action Council (NSAC) for leading the coalition and working hard to generate support for the mandatory take-back measure in the face of aggressive lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry.

While this weaker version of the bill is a substantial setback, there is hope: It will likely reappear (with more teeth) after November, before a new Board.

What’s next?

Medical waste contaminating our beaches and communities is a preventable problem. A mandatory take-back program is a solution. Heal the Bay doesn’t give up easily, and we will continue to work with the Sups. Kuehl, Solis, and the NSAC to keep this issue alive until it’s revisited by the Board.

For more details, check out KPCC’s and the L.A. Times’ coverage of this issue.

If you haven’t added your name to our petition supporting a mandatory drug and syringe take-back program, it’s not too late.





Mar. 21, 2016 — Big pharmaceutical companies are fighting a takeback program for needles and outdated medicines at corner pharmacies, writes staff scientist Steven Johnson

The poet John Milton once asked: “Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night?”

Optimists are good at finding the silver lining in unfortunate circumstances. But there is a flipside to the phrase Milton coined in 1636. Something may seem wholly positive at first glance, only to reveal negatives upon closer inspection and the passage of time. Or as Milton might have put it: “All silver, no matter how bright, develops spots of tarnish.”

That’s how I look at the one-use hypodermic needle, which has no doubt benefited society but has also become a danger within our trash pick-up infrastructure and on our local shorelines.

Fortunately, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is taking up the issue of harmful medical waste. The Board is now mulling a proposal that would create a take-back program at corner pharmacies for used syringes, expired medication and other potential threats.

But the common-sense measure is getting pushback from the big pharmaceutical companies.

We need you to lend your voice supporting an ordinance, which asks producers to take some responsiblity for the waste they create. You can read on for more detail, or just click here to sign our petition.

Sign the petition for pharmacy take-back of syringes

The advent of the mass-produced disposable syringe in the mid-20th century can certainly be viewed as a positive when it comes to public health. These ultra-sanitary disposable devices continue to help millions of diabetics and other people dealing with medical issues.

They also help fend off the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B among drug-addicted populations and have led to the creation of affordable needle exchange programs for counties nationwide.

But what happens to all of these used syringes after their single use? At this point in their lifecycle they are collectively known as “sharps” because of the dangers they pose to waste handlers. In hospitals and other medical facilities they’re carefully disposed of…but what about the remainder on the streets and in homes?

Some 13.5 million people in the U.S. are disposing of 7.8 billion syringes annually, according to Coalition for Safe Community Needle Disposal estimates. Juxtapose this statistic with California state law H&SC §118286, which makes it illegal to toss opened syringes into the trash or recycling containers, and you have a conundrum. How exactly are California citizens actually supposed to dispose of this enormous quantity of needles?

The websites of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and CalRecycle are all careful to mention the dangers of sharps and make it clear not to throw them away in standard garbage bins or flush them down the toilet.

Unfortunately, practical advice about what to do with medical waste gets quite cloudy. The official language is often vague:

  • “some communities offer collection sites that accept used needles—often for free”
  • “call your local trash or public health department to find out about sharps disposal programs in your area”
  • “you can buy mail-back services which come with a sharps container and mail-back packaging to mail the container back once it is full”
  • “Explore other options”

These programs are the opposite of convenient–if they even exist in your neighborhood in the first place.

The conversation would probably end here for most of us who aren’t diabetics, do not suffer from multiple sclerosis, are not seeking increased fertility, or aren’t nursing a sick pet, for example. Not our problem!

But medical waste is a problem for all of us, as last year’s  release of sewage-related material from Hyperion demonstrated. A storm left beaches scattered with sharps and other sickening debris. Here at Heal the Bay we also find syringes at our beach and inland clean-ups, likely inappropriately discarded and washed through the stormdrain system. This medical refuse is not only unsightly but extremely dangerous for beachgoers and cleanup crews.

To address this problem, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is creating an ordinance that will put the burden of collecting used sharps (as well as other unused pharmaceutical drugs) on the producer, in this case the pharmaceutical and medical supplies companies.

The development of these take-back programs, with plans to be located in local pharmacies and other convenient areas, will be a tremendous asset to community and environmental health.

Unfortunately, the big pharmaceutical companies are already lobbying against the measure, citing cost concerns among other issues. The fact is, drug manufacturers have already designed, funded, and currently operate collection programs in Canada, Mexico, Portugal, and Brazil—all countries who pay a great deal less than Americans for their pharmaceuticals.

It should be noted that pharmaceutical companies currently have one of the highest profit margins in the U.S.—averaging about 20% and realizing billions of dollars each year. The National Stewardship Action Council estimates that an effective take-back program would only require an investment of 1 cent for every $10 in prescription drugs sold.

Please join Heal the Bay as we press for the enactment of this ordinance at the L.A. County Board of Supervisors meeting on the morning of Tuesday, June 14. The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. at the Board’s Hearing Room within the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown L.A., 500 W. Temple Street in Room 381B.

Sign the petition for pharmacy take-back of syringes

Feb. 22, 2016 — Most people have no idea there’s a plan afoot to build L.A.’s first desal plant. Staff scientist Steven Johnson reports on building opposition to the proposal.

Want to know where the real action is in Manhattan Beach on a Tuesday night? Hint: It’s not popular bars like Shellback or Sharkeez. No, the real hot spot is the Manhattan Beach City Hall. It’s where you could find me and my Heal the Bay wingman Jose Bacallao last Tuesday night, speaking out against the building of an ill-advised desalination plant on the South Bay shoreline.

Very few Angelenos – let alone Manhattanites – have any idea that the West Basin Municipal Water District wants to construct a massive desalination plant on the beach near the El Segundo-Manhattan Beach border. The district hopes to release in June its Environmental Impact Report for the project, which would be the first full-fledged desal plant in Los Angeles County.

Digital rendering of desalination plant, courtesy of West Basin Municipal Water District



While we are waiting to see the analysis within the EIR, Heal the Bay has concerns that this is simply the wrong project, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. The $300 million plant aims to convert up to 60 million gallons of seawater a day into drinking water for the 17 cities the agency serves.

Besides our obvious concerns about the plant literally sucking the life out of the ocean, we worry about West Basin wasting a lot of time, energy and ratepayer money.

Why build a costly desal plant before fully exploring more efficient infrastructure options like water recycling and stormwater capture?

Though the EIR isn’t due until June, the council put the discussion item about the proposed plant on the agenda to begin formal public discourse about the sure-to-be controversial project. You’d expect Heal the Bay to be worried about desalination, but some other powerful opponents to the proposed project also lent their voice to the debate Tuesday night.

Manhattan Beach Mayor Mark Burton described the proposed plant as “a giant step backward in our commitment to getting the Santa Monica Bay back to its natural state.” Hermosa Beach Mayor Pro Tem Hany Fangary also lent his voice of dissent. Craig Cadwallader, a longtime Heal the Bay ally and driving force at the South Bay chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, also urged West Basin to more fully explore recycling infrastructure before embarking on a costly desal plan.

Bacallao, the senior aquarist at our Santa Monica Bay Aquarium, and I spoke during public comments. We reminded attendees that ocean desalination is bad for the wallet, marine life, and the future of our coastlines.

After spirited discussion, the Manhattan Beach City Council voted 5-0 to approve a letter to West Basin Municipal Water District opposing the project and listing the city’s specific objections.

The action is largely symbolic, as council does not have any regulatory control over the project being built. (Ultimately, the California Coastal Commission and other state agencies would have to approve the project.)

But Mayor Burton and his peers expressed their desire to voice their concerns early to West Basin’s board of directors while the plant is still in the planning stage. They made it clear that they view the plant as blight on their shorelines, one that would further degrade a marine environment already challenged by nearby industrial impacts. The thought is that enough public pressure might convince the agency to shelve the plan in favor of other water supply options.

Driving home, I thought about the potential appeal of desalination. Strange times, brought on by the scary thought of drought, often bring extreme solutions. Like a shipwrecked crew in a lifeboat terrified of dehydration, some Southern California communities have looked to seawater desalination as an easy way to slake their thirst.

With Southern California importing 80% of its water, it’s understandable why a local water agency would want to become more self-sufficient. West Basin says on its website that the plant could provide “local control of water without the threat of . . . being cut off from the supply.”

Sounds reasonable, right?

Well, speaking as someone not in the lifeboat, I’d suggest to West Basin that there’s water all around them. West Basin is already adjacent to a plentiful source of Proposed location of plant, between El Segundo and Manhattan Beachwater — the City  of Los Angeles’ Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, which currently provides West Basin with 40 million gallons of highly treated recycled water each day.

West Basin already has plans to nearly double the water recycling effort to create 70 million gallons of recycled water by 2020. It seems strange that West Basin wants to add a mere 10% to their current water portfolio by jumping into costly and risky desalination—commonly considered a last resort for water-starved communities by everyone from the country of Israel to the chair of Yale University’s Chemical Engineering department. Especially when even more water than what they have projected could be sourced from Hyperion.

Millions of dollars have already gone into scoping this standalone desal plant. That money would have been better spent creating a comprehensive blueprint about how Hyperion and West Basin could better align their interests to dramatically ramp up shared water recycling. (You can read more about the potential of water recycling and stormwater capture here.)

Yes, getting two separate municipal agencies to work together is messy and can be complicated. But too often politics and control-issues trump common sense. West Basin is seeking an autonomous water future, but at what cost?

Because it’s so energy intensive, desalination is not only the most expensive option for drinking water, it also has the potential to put the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, aggravating climate change.

Adding to the environmental issues, West Basin’s analyses at this point show that subsurface seawater intake valves appear infeasible at their proposed plant location, forcing the use of exposed, open-ocean intake valves. This means sucking millions of gallons out of the open ocean environment each day, a concept that is completely out-of-step with Heal the Bay’s mission to protect the marine environment.

Not only do open-ocean water intake valves vacuum up fish larvae, the final by-product of desalination is a double-salty toxic brine. That slurry is diffused back out into the ocean, creating a second detrimental impact on marine life. (You can read more about our top 5 concerns with desal here.)

Before jumping into desal, West Basin might learn from other agencies’ mistakes.

San Diego has recently built the Pacific’s largest desalination plant in Carlsbad. Just one month after city officials ceremoniously cut the tape on the plant, city water suppliers in February had to dump more than 500 million gallons of perfectly (and expensively) good drinking water into the Lower Otay Reservoir, near Chula Vista.

Sounds crazy, right?

Tanner and Jasper Ford drink recycled water during a tour of West Basin’s Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility

Under its contract with desal operator Poseidon Resources, the San Diego County Water Authority must buy a certain quota of desalinated water produced by the plant. The only problem is that San Diegans, responding to the Governor’s pleas to conserve during the drought, are doing too good a job of cutting back. San Diego now has more water than it needs. With an overabundance of water supply, San Diego is creating its own scenario from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

Heal the Bay applauds the Manhattan Beach City Council for speaking out about West Basin’s proposed desalination plant and bringing awareness to a situation that has received scant public attention.

We would also like to commend West Basin for their leadership and innovation over their almost 70-year history. They have been a good partner with Heal the Bay and they should be lauded for their efforts on water conservation and current recycling program.

We respectfully encourage West Basin to fully explore expanding their current water recycling programs rather than chase the unicorn of a desal plant.

Heightened water recycling with Hyperion is the most responsible way to increase West Basin’s water supply. It’s also a common-sense initiative that would win very broad support – unlike desal.

Perhaps sometime in the future, we’ll all reconvene for another Tuesday night at the Manhattan Beach City Council watering hole. We can toast the future with a crystal-clear, purified glass of recycled water.

In the meantime, we promise to keep you posted and alert you about opportunities for the public to weigh in on this matter.

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