You may not pay any attention to the trash you see along the roads in your neighborhood or any of the streets around town, but those empty water bottles, soda cans, Styrofoam cups, plastic drinking straws and other bits of plastic that you see lying on the ground, forgotten, are ending up in the Missouri River.
Heavy rains and winds carry the trash from the streets into storm drains and creeks, which then empty into the Missouri River and eventually reach the oceans.
Steve Schnarr, program director with Missouri River Relief, “a grassroots, volunteer and equipment-based organization dedicated to reconnecting people to the Missouri River through hands-on river cleanups and education events,” describes it as “incidental trash,” or in other words, trash left behind by well-meaning people who just weren’t paying attention and are unaware of how their forgotten trash could end up polluting rivers and oceans.
Schnarr has seen plenty of incidental trash over the last 10 years as he and teams of volunteers have hauled ton after ton of trash from the Missouri. Last year alone the group pulled out 592 tons of trash.
Missouri River Relief will be in Washington next week to lead a series of events, including a hands-on educational workshop with local fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders on Wednesday and Thursday, a fundraising dinner on the barge Thursday evening and a daylong cleanup on Saturday.
A river festival also will be held Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (See story on 5C.)
It’s all part of the Big Muddy Clean Sweep, the keystone event marking Missouri River Relief’s 10th anniversary this year.
Schnarr is currently looking for volunteers to help with the cleanup here. People can contact him ahead of time by calling him at 573-289-2077 or emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or they can show up Saturday morning at 9 at the Washington riverfront.
Missouri River Relief has led cleanups in Washington several times before but this time will be a little different. The crew will be arriving by barge.
The River Cleanup towboat will push into town early next week with a sand flat that looks likes a giant dumpster, a house barge that features the crew’s quarters and kitchen, and a work flat which is simply a flat work area.
This week the boat is docked in Hermann. It arrived Monday evening for a week of activities that will end in a cleanup there on Saturday.
When it leaves headed for Washington, there are no plans to stop along the way, but Schnarr said if people in between Hermann and Washington are inspired to conduct their own cleanups in those places, they can leave the bagged trash at the bank, call him (573-289-2077) to give its location and the barge will stop to pick it up.
‘We Definitely See a Pattern’
At first glance, the river and its banks may look pretty clean, no trash in sight. But when you look closer, you begin to notice it.
Because of the flooding earlier this year, much of the trash has been pushed up into the woods along the banks, said Schnarr. During the clean up in Jefferson City last week, a crew found a slew of trash 150 yards into the woods.
Schnarr said he doesn’t usually get upset anymore at seeing all of the incidental trash. He picks it up and works that much harder at educating people about it.
“We definitely see a pattern,” he said. “Below urban areas where streams come into the Missouri River, we will see all of this plastic garbage, mostly general trash that gets washed into storm drains during rain events and end up in the Missouri.”
Not all of the trash comes from such innocent sources, Schnarr realizes. There are definitely people who intentionally dump things into the river — tires, carpet, old broken down refrigerators that would cost them $10 to place in a landfill, used motor oil . . .
“Anything that costs people money to dispose of are things we find in the river,” said Schnarr.
There are also fishermen and “partiers” on boats who toss trash — beer cans or bait containers — over the side of the boat instead of bringing it back to shore to dispose of properly.
Part of that mindset can be cultural, said Schnarr. It’s something people have always done and they don’t realize the harm it’s doing.
Why Clean It Up?
Regardless of how the trash gets to the river, Schnarr and his crew make it their business to clean it up for several reasons, beginning with the fact that trash just looks ugly, plain and simple.
“If the river is your playground, your place to get nourished by nature, you don’t want a bunch of trash lying around,” said Schnarr.
More than that, however, is that this trash is doing damage, he said. Birds, fish and other wildlife are getting tangled in it, or worse, mistaking it for food and eating it.
“Biologists have found fish that have been damaged by plastics because they get tangled up in it or have swallowed it,” said Schnarr. “It’s more of a problem than people realize. All of it eventually washes into the oceans . . . and we’re starting to find out some of the problems this floating waste is causing.”
There is an “abnormal concentration” of trash that has collected in one area of the Pacific Ocean where historically organic material collects, said Schnarr. Animals have come to this area to feed on that organic patch, which is now mixed largely with trash and broken bits of plastic.
“They die because their stomachs are filled up with these plastics,” said Schnarr.
Another reason to clean up the trash is the chemicals that the trash is releasing into the water.
“If you’ve ever smelled a tire, what you’re smelling is petro chemicals, and those are ending up in our water stream from dumped tires,” said Schnarr, noting it’s also common to find bottles full of waste oil dumped in the river.
In addition to getting all of these items out of the river, the cleanups are about educating people, said Schnarr.
“We’re not going to make any major changes to that (trash patch) with this, but a big part of what we do is education,” he said. “We want to open people’s eyes to the impact cities have on the Missouri River.
“One-sixth of the continental U.S. drains into the Missouri.”
The education workshops that Schnarr will be leading with local school groups will have two main points to get across — the scale of the river and that trash lying on their street will eventually end up in the river — that includes lost balls that rolled away never to be seen again.
“They end up in storm drains and then in the river,” said Schnarr, picking up a mud-covered tennis ball from one of the bags collected in Jefferson City last week.
“We all live downstream,” Schnarr remarked.