As snow falls in our little corner of Southwest Colorado, we’re reminded that 2011 is rapidly drawing to a close. This year is American Rivers’ 20th anniversary, and we want to see the year out with more clean rivers and streams. Last year saw 2 million pounds of trash removed from our nation’s waterways through this organization alone. Let’s beat that statistic – we have two and a half months to do it!
What can you do to help? Organize or participate locally. Search here for an American Rivers cleanup in your area. There are also countless local watershed organizations, one probably very close to you.
Alex Silbajoris directs the Friends of the Scioto River (FOSR) litter cleanup just outside of downtown Columbus, Ohio.
“In late winter and early spring, high water covers a wooded floodplain below the dam. Logs and sticks floating on the water become jammed among the trees, creating piles which resemble beaver dams,” he explains. “These log piles allow water to pass through, so in effect they become filters, catching litter as it floats in.”
FOSR posts the event on the website. “But we never know who will show up,” Silbajoris says. “Once we had three people registered online, but 30 actually showed up.” The group provides gloves, trash bags, hand sanitizer and water from a 5-gallon jug, no bottles.
As always, the findings prove interesting. “There’s a wide variety of floated litter, much more than just plastic bottles,” Silbajoris says. “For example, a vehicle wheel with a mounted tire can float; we find at least one every year. Big plastic pieces like coolers or playground equipment join fragments of Styrofoam, thousands of bottle caps, and oddball items like traffic cones and orange barrels. Sometimes, by the way the bits are arranged, you can tell there was a little swirling eddy that captured a lot of small stuff.”
“But that’s not the whole picture; that’s just the litter that floats visibly on top of the water,” he says. “There is also an unknown amount of plastic film and bags immersed in the moving water. This ranges from little shreds and ribbons of sheet plastic, to large items like derelict tents, and very large items like industrial tarpaulins.”
“I’m actually more worried about the bags and sheeting than I am about the bottles and oddball items,” he says. “Those are highly visible and someone can gather them even if they’ve been out long enough to turn yellow from UV exposure. But the film just keeps breaking into smaller inert bits and there’s little or no visible problem. There’s no wildlife snared in it, but is it building up in their guts?”
Silbajoris points out that these findings are just a small percentage of what actually flows through the stream on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. “I know these cleanups are catching only a small amount of what passes through the area. And then the Scioto is only one tributary to the Ohio and Mississippi. We can pull a truckload of plastic trash out of our work areas, but there are trainloads of litter bumping their way downriver to the Gulf.”
No river cleanup schedule in your location soon? Celebrate your local watershed and its wildlife by organizing your own. And let us know about it so we can cheer you on!