Environmental Responsibility 101: Trash goes in the trash can

A river clean-up effort yields a ton of trash and a new perspective.

Last weekend I participated in my first river clean-up. The effort was organized by the D.C. chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, on the Anacostia River here in Washington.

Twenty volunteers collected about three dozen large bags of trash in a couple hours—roughly one ton of debris. We canoed up the river, stopping to wade in mud and pick up trash—mostly plastic bottles, but also plastic bags, beer cans, Styrofoam and food wrappers. We also retrieved a half-dozen tires and a shopping cart.

While it was good to see the trash in a bag--instead of floating on the water or stuck in branches or ice on the bank of the river--it was discouraging to leave so much behind and to feel that the effort was futile. After all, about 20,000 tons of trash and debris are pushed off sidewalks, streets and parking lots into the Anacostia River every year by rain and snowstorms, according to the Anacostia Watershed Society.

“Our efforts are really a drop in the bucket as far as mitigating the amount of trash making its way downstream,” D.C. Surfrider chair Julie Lawson wrote in an email. “But our role is also to develop activists--and after a person spends a couple of hours on their Saturday pulling trash out of the mud, they are often more inclined to work for effective legislation, stronger enforcement, and better behavior by ourselves and our neighbors.”

I hadn’t really thought about becoming an “activist” until I read Lawson’s email. But she’s right--wading in the mud and picking up someone else’s slime-covered beer can (I’ll spare you the really disgusting finds) really does change your outlook. It may seem overly straightforward, but now I can speak from experience about the effects of littering. And I simply wonder: Why can’t people throw their trash in the trash can?

A report prepared for the District Department of the Environment last December shows that plastic bags, Styrofoam products, snack wrappers (potato chip and candy bar packaging) , bottles and cans compose nearly 85 percent of the items found in the Anacostia. The study found that in some places where debris was collected, a trash can was nearby, proving that whether a trash (or recycling) receptacle exists or not, bottles are still discarded in the wrong places.

The D.C. bag law that takes effect next month is a great start. And outlawing Styrofoam (including expanded polystyrene foam, or EPF) for takeout food is a great next step (there are good alternatives, such as corrugated paper clamshells and paper cups). Organizations across the country are working to pass bills such as these, which I fully support.

But in the meantime, I challenge you to undertake your own first step. Put your trash where it belongs.

Click here to read a Q&A with the District Department of the Environment’s acting chief of staff.

Click here to read about Washington’s Anacostia River and its watershed.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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