What to do with all those sandbags after the storms, and where to get free sand and bags

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Following the storm, sandbags were spotted up and down Malibu Colony Beach before they were buried just days after. Photo by Julie Ellerton/TMT

Ahead of major storms, Malibu residents with houses subject to possible flooding are always urged to go to one of the local fire stations and obtain up to 25 free sandbags and sand while supplies last. The LA County Department of Public Works funds the program.

Before and during the recent two-week rainy period, when Malibu received the lion’s share of the 14.06 inches of rain (https://dpw.lacounty.gov/wrd/rainfall/ ) that fell here since Oct. 1, over 100 homeowners picked up sand and sandbags from one Malibu fire station alone: Station 70 at PCH and Carbon Canyon.

That adds up to 2,500 sandbags just from that one fire station for one period of rain. Once the sandbags have served their purpose, what happens to all of them? Julie Ellerton, a resident of the Malibu Colony neighborhood, expressed concern that most homeowners on the beach just let the sandbags either wash out to sea or be buried in the sand by the high tides. 

Plastic (polypropylene) sandbags are banned in Malibu (except for first responders in emergency situations); but still allowed in the rest of LA County. If a plastic sandbag washes out into the ocean, it could take 20-30 years to break down into microplastics, which are still hazardous to ocean life. 

Even though plastic sandbags are banned, some of the sandbags on Malibu Beach that Ellerton photographed look suspiciously like they’re made of plastic fabric. 

Captain Taylor of Fire Station 70 said in a phone interview that they give out burlap sandbags here, which are made of natural biodegradable plant materials like jute and sisal. For disposal, those bags can be emptied of sand and placed in the green waste bins designated for organic materials.

Burlap bags last two to six months in sunlight before biodegrading and becoming a part of the natural environment again. If not in direct sunlight, they last eight months to a year.

Taylor confirmed that anyone with proof of residency in Malibu can come by for the supplies. They used to have shovels available but stopped providing them because “people kept stealing them.” So now, it’s BYOS — bring your own shovel.

Taylor said it’s about 50/50 between beachfront residents and canyon residents coming for the sandbags.

If a nearby fire station outside of Malibu runs out of supplies, sometimes Station 70 serves as an alternate location, which happened recently when Topanga ran out temporarily.

The LA County Department of Public Works publishes an online handbook on how to properly place sandbags and other debris-blocking materials at dpw.lacounty.gov/landing/em/docs/HOMEOWNERSGUIDE.pdf.

While all Malibu fire stations carry the free sandbags, only two county locations here have sand, according to the latest list put out by the county: Fire Station 70 at 3970 Carbon Canyon Road and Zuma Beach Lifeguard HQ at 29600 Pacific Coast Highway.

The sand does not come from local beaches; it comes from the county’s Pacoima warehouse facility. However, according to Taylor, it’s still OK to dispose of the sand from sandbags onto the beach here. Keep in mind, though, that if the sand was in contact with floodwaters or high tides, it could be contaminated with things like bacteria, lawn chemicals, or motor oil.

Neither Malibu, LA County or any other nearby jurisdiction has any specific rules or suggestions for the disposal of used sand or sandbags; making it seem like the wild west compared to many East Coast counties; especially Florida. 

Nassau County in Florida, whose Public Works Department filled and distributed more than 30,000 sandbags for Hurricane Ian, tells people to “consider using the sand to fill holes or low spots in your lawn or using the sand in your flower beds.” Unlike Malibu, they emphatically tell residents to not “dump sand from sandbags onto the beach, because it’s different than sand found naturally on the beach and can cause environmental issues, particularly for nesting shorebirds and sea turtles.” In addition, the Floridians aren’t allowed to dispose of sand and/or full sandbags in the regular trash, because it “won’t burn in trash incinerators” and damages their equipment.