Cleaning up our Rivers – A Project in Environmental Stewardship & Citizen Science

A scientific study published just 7 weeks ago underscored the dubious distinction of the US in being #1 on the entire planet in generating plastic waste. Data collected from 2016 showed that nearly all of this waste (which originated on land) found its way to the oceans contributing to the massive ocean garbage gyres1.

I have written about the perils faced by aquatic wildlife last year, in conjunction with UN’s World Wildlife Day which shone a spotlight on “Life below water: for people and planet”. According to the fact sheet compiled by Earth Day2, we dump ~48 million pounds (one garbage truck full) of plastics every minute into the oceans globally. At this rate, there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans by 2050. A direct consequence of this pollution is the decimation of marine wildlife. Aquatic animals, unable to distinguish plastics from real food, ingest the former which fills their stomachs preventing them from eating the latter and are starving to death. Sea turtles caught in fisheries operating close to garbage patches have been found to have up to 74% of their diets composed of ocean plastics. All the seafood that we eat now have plastic microfibers in them which in turn compromise our own health and wellbeing.

According to Earth Day, we dump ~48 million pounds (one garbage truck full) of plastics every minute into the oceans globally. At this rate, there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans by 2050

As part of the course work related to Hydrosphere, I assigned my students a lab activity – to conduct cleanups of rivers, beaches, local parks, sidewalks & storm drains, etc., individually or together (taking COVID-related precautions), wherever they were located. In addition to learning about environmental stewardship, they would become citizen scientists collecting and uploading the cleanup data to Ocean Conservancy’s global ocean trash database using its Clean Swell Mobile App3. These data would be analyzed by professional scientists and help inform public policy in reducing and managing the trash we generate.

To lead off the activity and to set an example, I chose Hains Point, DC, where the Potomac, and Anacostia rivers and Washington Channel merge, to conduct my own cleanup.

On a sunny day in early November, I spent over 3 hours collecting about 25 pounds of trash over a 6,000 sq. ft. area. The trash included consumer plastics (containers, bottles, caps, cutlery, wrappers, bags, gloves, wipes, masks, dental flossers, toys, pieces of foam insulation, chunks of Styrofoam, thick pieces of plastic such as from car fenders), fishing gear (several 100 feet of nylon fishing lines, lead sinkers, rod holders, bait hooks), smoking-related garbage (cigarette lighters, cigarette holders and filters, cigarette butts), corks, aluminum beer cans, and glass bottles. 

I went back to this area on a cold windy December 23, 2020 and collected nearly 50 pounds of trash scattered over 15,000 sq. ft. in more than 3 hours. There was still so much trash in the area that I forced myself not to look down as I headed back.

More trash cans near picnic tables and park benches might help prevent some of the trash from getting into the rivers although I found plenty of trash on streets even around trash cans. Plastic trash on streets scatters about, getting into and/or blocking storm drains which lead to the Anacostia or Potomac rivers.
The food-related plastic litter on streets, especially near trash cans, attracts birds, squirrels, and other animals which chew on them and food scraps also attract giant rats (evidenced by the rat traps hidden under shrubs and hedges all across the city).

We are sacrificing our natural environment and ourselves in the long term for physical convenience and ease of living in the short term. Measures such as phasing out plastic straws or placing a 5c surcharge on single use plastic shopping bags, while helpful, are akin to putting a bandage on a severed jugular vein. Continuing to pick up the plastic trash without ever stopping or reducing the source of disposable plastics is analogous to mopping up the flooded area around an overflowing bathtub, without turning off the water flow – both are useless. In the US, the Clean Water Act (CWA) established the basic framework for regulating pollutants into its surface waters. The policies promulgated under this mandate have obviously not kept up with emerging pollutants such as micro or macroplastics. US waterways are littered with plastic waste and even as the country emerged to be the leader in generating such waste, there is no comprehensive policy action yet under the CWA or other relevant laws. Strict policies must be coupled with robust implementation to be effective. Pollution control at the source must incorporate real-time scientific data to stay current with the changing nature of pollutants in all three media. Only then could we avoid species extinction and preserve biodiversity. A comprehensive national policy that combines stiff penalties and incentives in both supply side and demand side management of plastics production, usage, and waste generation is very long overdue. Even then, the momentum of the current waste stream will be felt long after any meaningful policy is promulgated. As I have seen with my students, education certainly helps in raising awareness of plastics pollution and individual responsibility in reducing consumption, waste generation, and in environmental stewardship

The plastic trash I pick up will barely make a dent in the amount that is heading towards the Atlantic Ocean from this Chesapeake Bay Watershed every day. Nonetheless, I will continue to do so even as I make every conscious effort to avoid using plastics in the first place. I could not live otherwise.

  1. Law, K.L. et al., 10/30/2020. The United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean. Science Advances, 6(44).
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1 thought on “Cleaning up our Rivers – A Project in Environmental Stewardship & Citizen Science”

  1. Sadly, the costs of polluting our air and water have been externalized, and the tragedy of the commons has resulted in this dire situation. Much gratitude for taking the time to clean up Hains Point; hopefully more people in the community will do the same and pressure the policy makers to create more sustainable policies so that all species can breathe, eat and drink safely.

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