Washington, Mo., may not seem like the front lines when it comes to fighting the flow of trash into the world’s oceans, but if you saw the amount of garbage pulled from the Missouri River during a cleanup event, like the one going on here Saturday, April 13, you might think differently.
Kevin Tosie, operations manager for Missouri River Relief, the Columbia-based nonprofit organization that is leading the cleanup event here, said 6.25 tons of trash was removed from the streets and creeks of Washington in 2017 and 5.3 tons in 2015.
Last year, Missouri River Relief (MRR) removed 14 tons of trash from the river (not in Washington), he noted.
And since MRR began holding cleanups along 1,245 miles of the Missouri River back in 2001, more than 26,700 volunteers have removed a whopping 920 tons of trash from the river, its banks and the surrouding area.
Plastic bottles and aluminum cans are some of the most plentiful items pulled from the river, said Tosie. So are Styrofoam remnants from coolers and cups. Unfortunately, those items are not always intact.
“Some you have to pick up in pieces because they are breaking apart, into smaller pieces, which is a huge problem” said Tosie.
Some of the more unusual items that are found in the river are lightbulbs.
“We find a ton of lightbulbs,” said Tosie. “Even the longer fluorescent tube ones, that you would think would break and sink to the bottom, we find still intact”
They also find the occasional bowling ball, often times on the riverbanks, but sometimes in the water.
“They do float, surprisingly,” Tosie remarked.
A look at the list of items collected in MRR cleanups along the Missouri River last year includes 156 tires, 136 balls, many appliances (five refrigerators, two hot water heaters, a washing machine, a dishwasher and even a George Foreman grill) and nearly 50 plastic buckets and tubs of various sizes.
Some of these things may be purposely dumped in the river to easily dispose of them, but many find their way there by way of the city streets.
“The most common items we find in the river are bottles and cans that may have happened to fall into the streets or sidewalks and then were washed down the storm drains and then the municipal stormwater system,” said Tosie. “A lot of people think that stuff gets filtered out before it hits the river, but a lot goes straight to the river from the storm drain.”
And from the river, the trash can quite easily end up in the ocean, he noted. That is affecting us all.
“The sunlight breaks down these plastics to where they eventually get turned into microplastics — the plastic keeps breaking down and breaking down more over time, and some of it does start to look like the prey of fish,” said Tosie. “A plastic grocery bag can look like jellyfish . . . It’s something that will bioaccumulate over time, and we are seeing it in our fish and wildlife now.”
Small Ways to Support the Cause
With that in mind, it seems there are things people can do on a daily basis to help reduce and prevent trash from ending up in the river, and it doesn’t have to require a lot of effort.
“There are lots of small things people can do to contribute,” said Tosie.
• Be responsible in how you dispose of your trash. For weekly trash pickups, make sure your trash bags or cans are secure when you set them out at the curb, so items can’t easily blow away.
• When you see trash on the side of the road or somewhere, pick it up and put it in a secure trash can.
• Reduce your personal usage of things that generate trash and “refuse” things that you don’t need — such as plastic bags when you only have one or two items that you’re buying or plastic straws and utensils from a drive-thru restaurant when you’re taking the food home to eat anyway.
“It’s about saying no to taking things that you don’t need,” said Tosie. If you only have a couple of items you’re buying at the grocery store, maybe you don’t need to put them in a plastic bag to carry home. Or with milk jugs, maybe you don’t need to put them in a plastic bag at the grocery store, since the jug already has a handle.
“Those kind of small things can make a huge difference,” he said.
Gloria Attoun-Bauermeister, chair of the Washington River Festival that, in conjuction with the cleanup, is going on at the riverfront Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., agrees.
She goes so far as to bring a small food container with her whenever she goes out to eat at a restaurant, so she can use it to bring home any leftovers, rather than needing to use a Styrofoam container that the restaurant offers.
“Some people think I’m a little nuts,” she admits, but she hopes more people will follow suit and it will become common place in the future.
“Refusing plastic or paper bags at the grocery store used to be considered weird by a lot of people, by the workers at the stores and the other shoppers,” she said. “But now it’s really common place.”
• Switch from single-use plastic bottle drinks to bringing your own reusable cup or bottle to places where you will want a drink.
This is Attoun-Bauermeister’s top suggestion for anyone wanting to help reduce plastic waste. She already sees this as a trend, but wants to encourage even more people to jump on board and make the effort.
“There are so many nice reusable cups and bottles available now, some that are stainless steel with lids and nice logos on them,” she said.
In fact, reusable stainless steel tumblers with the Washington River Festival logo will be sold at the event for $10 each. People can purchase one and start using it right away with the food and drink vendors at the festival, said Attoun-Bauermeister.
• Organize a neighborhood trash cleanup on the streets and roadsides near your home.
“Make a block party of it,” said Attoun-Bauermeister. “Everybody can make some food to share, have a party, and for a couple of hours in the morning, everyone pick up some trash.”
Not only will this help keep trash out of the creeks and river, it will sharpen people’s eyes for noticing other places where trash needs to be cleaned up.
The trash can blend in to the landscape sometimes until you actually start looking for it, said Attoun-Bauermeister, but after you’ve done any sort of cleanup, you will begin to notice it easily. The trash will stand out to you.
“In my experience, I cannot walk by trash now without picking it up,” she remarked.
‘Zero Trash’ Event
The first Washington River Cleanup and Festival was held in 2008, and even back then one goal of the event was to generate zero trash. That continues today.
So all of the food vendors at the festival are required to use only recyclable or compostable materials (cups, plates and utensils). Styrofoam items won’t be allowed.
At the event, there will be separate trash cans where people can place their trash, depending on if it is recyclable, compostable or neither.
The hope, Attoun-Bauermeister explained, is that people — both vendors and festivalgoers — will begin to consider using these same types of materials at other times for themselves too.
Education Will Lead to Change
This sort of education about ways people can Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle is a key purpose of the Washington River Festival. There will be more than a dozen vendor booths set up with nature-oriented lessons and information.
“They will talk about how trash affects the rivers or what the watershed looks like, animals along the river,” said Attoun-Bauermeister. “And the more you teach families and young people about nature and the natural world, the more they respect it. And the more they respect it, the less likely they will be to litter or do harm.
“We would like our children and our children’s children to be able to live on this planet in good health, and if you have a healthy planet, it’s more likely to have healthy people. There is a direct correlation between those things.”
MRR has found that hands-on experiences, like those offered at the cleanup and festival, leads to greater understanding which leads to better practices at home.
Stefanie Virgen, a member of the Washington River Festival committee and the adviser for the Environmental Club at Washington Middle School where she works as a teacher, said it’s difficult for her students to comprehend that trash in the street, miles from a creek, can easily reach the ocean.
“We use a model of an aquatic ecosystem, and I show them how everything from pesticides to fertilizers to trash washes into storm drains, into creeks or drainage, through tributaries, into major waterways like the Missouri River, which then proceeds into other waterways like the Mississippi and on into the ocean — in our case, the Gulf of Mexico,” said Virgen. “They’re shocked when I tell them the ‘Dead Zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico — that surrounds the Mississippi River watershed — has been the largest dead zone ever recorded, and it’s caused by waste and excess fertilizer pollution . . . all the things that gather in our smaller waterways.”
It reinforces the saying among river cleanup crews, “We all live downstream,” said Virgen, who has participated in dozens of river cleanups and even formed the Virgen Stream Team several years ago with her husband Andy.
Kelly Oreskovic with Washington School District’s Parents as Teachers program, will have information at the river festival about the benefits of outdoor play for learning. PAT recommends at least one hour of outside play each day, she said.
“We encourage families to get out and experience nature, as it’s a great place to learn using all your senses and nature has many props for imaginative play,” said Oreskovic. “Studies show that children who get hands-on learning outside do better on standardized tests (Roizen & Oz, 2010). Children are also able to concentrate better, have lower stress levels, and are less likely to exhibit violent and bullying behavior (Strife & Downey, 2009).”
Families can spend time outside listening and looking for birds or animals, noticing different leaves and finding interesting rocks, for example. Children may notice things in nature that parents miss and they learn from each other.
It’s also a great opportunity for parents to teach children about cleaning up litter and respecting nature, said Oreskovic.
“We are so lucky to have so many nice parks, trails, creeks and rivers in our area,” she said. “If you get out and explore, you appreciate nature even more. When you’re out in nature, you can’t deny the need to take care of our land, creeks, rivers, streams and oceans.”
The Washington River Festival is free and open to the public. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Rennick Riverfront Park at Lafayette and Front streets in Downtown Washington.
Activities include live music, botanical walks to explore plant life and an art auction, including some Trash-to-Art sculptures.