Tiny Trash – What can we do about plastic waste? 

In 1969, an oil slick caught fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio near my home. This was the 13th time that the river had become engulfed in flames. My mom and I marched in protest, although I don’t remember it and I didn’t really march because she was pushing me in a stroller. 

According to Smithsonian magazine, what made it extraordinary this time was that National Geographic and Time magazine published articles about the Cuyahoga River’s ecological crisis, which raised visibility and sparked a national outcry. Americans were generally starting to become more respectful of the environment and people wanted change. 

This tragic event became one of the catalysts for change and in 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established, followed by the Clean Water Act, fully enacted in 1972. Thankfully, rivers in our country no longer have a habit of catching fire because industry no longer has the right to dump chemicals into rivers without regulation and a permit.

Push the Fast Forward Button!

Today, many river habitats are becoming healthier. The Fox River, for example, is seeing the return of different types of fish and predatory birds like eagles, great blue herons, and great egrets. Organizations and people have been caring for rivers for decades through cleanups and restoration projects. The Great Global Cleanup has become an Earth Day tradition, encouraging people around the world to work with their fellow community members to create a cleaner and healthier environment.

People joined together to clean up Willow Creek at an “It’s Our Fox River Day” 2023 event hosted by the Izaak Walton League.

Locally, Friends of the Fox River (FOTFR) helps organize cleanups and restoration projects throughout the year, including a watershed-wide event on the 3rd Saturday in September called “It’s Our Fox River Day”.  Other local non-profit organizations involved with cleanup projects include IWLA – Elgin Chapter, The Wild Ones, The Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, and The Conservation Foundation.

The net effect of local, national and global efforts is that we get to enjoy more beautiful rivers with less oil slicks and big garbage like refrigerators. 

Microplastics washed up on the shore of Fuerteventura,
an island in the Atlantic ocean.

The current threats to the river are sometimes a little less obvious than a huge fire or a partially submerged appliance. Some new threats are invisible to the naked eye like Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), microplastics and nanoplastics. 

More recently, we have been learning about how single-use plastics affect the environment – something that barely existed in 1969, but can be found almost everywhere now. Look around outside at a park, near a sewer or by the river. Do you see a piece of plastic trash on the ground? 

Push the Escape Button!

Weather is a conduit for litter entering rivers. Heavy winds can blow it around and rain will carry it while gravity steers it. Sometimes trash can blow out of receptacles meant for containing it.

Where does all this plastic come from? Some of it is intentional, but much of it can be attributed to unintentional littering.  Animals can knock over trash cans in search of food. Heavy wind and rains can blow and wash away light trash like plastic cups, bottles, and to-go boxes into sewers that feed into streams and into rivers.

The Keep America Beautiful 2020 National Litter Study estimates that there are 50 billion pieces of litter along U.S. roadways. It’s so huge, it seems insurmountable, but when divided by the U.S. population, it equates to 137 pieces per person. That’s a surmountable figure!

In many ways, tiny trash can pose a greater problem than gigantic garbage. The plastic trash you see on the ground creates new dangers over time as it degrades into microplastics, and from there into nanoplastics. Fish, invertebrates and other river critters mistake this tiny trash for food, get sick, and sometimes die. Earth.org found that 100,000 marine animals and 1 million sea birds die each year due to ocean plastic ingestion or entanglement.

Because rivers are connected to oceans, river cleanups are especially important in stopping the flow of plastics. The Fox River is connected to the Gulf of Mexico via the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

Plastics are the most common form of marine debris. They can come from a variety of land and ocean-based sources; enter the water in many ways; and impact the ocean and Great Lakes. (Infographic and caption courtesy of NOAA)

Some of the plastic in our rivers doesn’t flow all the way through. It can sink and sit at the bottom of a river and slowly release microplastics as it degrades for the next 500-1000 years. Plastic pieces can also get lodged in drains and flood entire neighborhoods.

Eating it, drinking it, and breathing it causes health problems in humans, and it seems like we can’t avoid ingesting it. Recent studies found that 80% of people have some level of plastic in their bodies, according to Harvard magazine.

Push the Reverse Button!

But it’s not all doom and gloom. People can make a difference when figuring out the best solutions and then acting on them collectively. Imagine if every person in the country picked up 137 pieces of trash while participating in a cleanup during “It’s Our Fox River Day”. We would all be able to enjoy a more beautiful and safer landscape! 

Tiny trash can be elusive because it’s not always easy to spot. How many cigarette butts can you count in this picture?

River cleanups could then focus on tiny trash. The small pieces can get overlooked during cleanups because there is a great feeling of satisfaction with filling up big bags with garbage. 

Since kids tend to be shorter and have smaller hands than adults, it may be fun to challenge your children to pick up tiny trash on your next cleanup. Give them a quarter and a small, clear resealable bag and ask them to fill their bag only with items that are smaller in size than the quarter. While you are filling your bag with cups, plasticware and the usual suspects, the kids can be alongside picking up the tiny pieces that often get passed by. Make sure to arm everyone with protective gloves because some of the tiny trash is sharp, like broken glass. Sometimes tools such as a teaspoon can be helpful too. 

Push the Restart Button!

What can we do to prevent plastic pollution? We could all be more cognizant of our personal garbage. For example, don’t leave trash sitting outside or the next storm might carry it away, and make sure your garbage cans are secure. As individuals, we can control some things but not everything.

Should our manufacturers stop using plastic to make clothes, cosmetics, electronics, tires, packaging and other popular items? Should chemical companies stop making agricultural and residential fertilizers coated in plastic for controlled release? Some countries have shifted to banning single-use plastics to curtail the problem. Many communities are adopting a retail plastic bag fee. Encourage and support your local municipal leaders to consider that.

My parents taught me to respect and love Mother Nature; my mom through environmental activism and my dad through camping several times in Quetico Provincial Park, where you pack out everything you brought in. I am grateful for those childhood experiences because they connected me with nature, and I learned that people can make a difference. 

No matter how big or small, every cleanup helps protect our environment. Don’t forget to pick up the tiny trash!