By Mark Fowler, Former Nature Initiative Director
Join National Public Lands Day, September 28th 2019!
Want Plastic-Free Oceans? Start With Our Rivers!
The alarming images of miles and miles of plastic islands floating around the oceans have raised awareness about the major problem of microplastics and huge garbage patches polluting our oceans. Fortunately, our communities are waking up to the need to significantly reduce our reliance on the use of single-use plastics, and around the world people are spending millions developing high-tech ways to clean up these plastic gyres in our oceans. But as we clean up the oceans, the less obvious or known approach, is the fact that we should be cleaning up our rivers and watersheds before the plastic and trash reaches oceans in the first place.
How We Give Back
Each year, as part of our Earth Day celebration at Grace Farms we participate in the “Source to Sound” Watershed Clean-Up, along with our local partners, and pick up thousands of pounds of plastic and debris from the Five Mile River Watershed, a major drainage basin that begins in New Canaan and winds through neighboring towns before flowing into Long Island Sound. Through our partnerships, collaborations, and year-long free public programing, our Nature Initiative is at the forefront of restoring and preserving our land.
This spring, for example, we had 40 volunteers, who spent two hours cleaning up a one-mile stretch of a local river, and they collected a whopping 4,000 pounds of trash and debris. It’s amazing how so few people can make such a huge difference in such a small amount of time. That shows we can all be part of the solution!
While we’ve become more aware of the plastic that end up in oceans thanks to advocacy and global activism, have we considered how this trash and plastic gets into our oceans? Is there a way to stop the plastic before it gets to our oceans?
Statistics on Plastic Pollution in Rivers
Well, new studies show that rivers are the major contributors of plastic in the oceans. There are 10 rivers around the world that are responsible for 90 percent of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans.
What is the extent of the problem? Here’s an overview: We produce nearly 300 million tons of plastic waste each year, according to a 2018 report from UN Environment. This is the equivalent of the collective weight of our global population, nearly 8 billion people. We are literally drowning in plastic and it’s ending up in our rivers. The same report added that we need to become more aware that rivers are the entry-way to our ocean pollution.
Our waste management isn’t as effective as we may imagine. Only 9 percent of all plastic waste has been recycled; about 12 percent has been incinerated, while the remainder has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment (i.e. rivers, watersheds, and oceans), according to the report. Some of the most common forms of plastic are grocery bags, drink bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, straws, and stirrers. As the plastic breaks down into particles over a long period of time they are even ending up in our food chains.
Cleanup at the Source
While some of these statistics may seem overwhelming, I believe we can individually and collectively make a huge difference. During National Public Lands Day on Sept 28, millions of volunteers will pick up trash along our rivers, streams, and land, in our national parks, and together – we the people – can make a huge impact cleaning up Mother Nature, our rivers and watersheds and therefore, our oceans. To find a cleanup in your area visit National Cleanup Day to find out where you can volunteer.
Local Events Near You
There are fun events all over the United States throughout the year where individuals, and groups large and small, are making a big difference all year long. Plogging, “picking up trash while jogging”, has become a relatively new global fitness craze that is spreading around the country. According to the Washington Post, the trend is fueled in part by environmentally-minded individuals who want to do more than just get in their daily run, but want to feel as though they are saving the planet, too.
A couple of weeks ago our long-term partner, Keep Norwalk Beautiful, helped organize the Trash Dash 5K, where more than 200 people ran and walked the local streets and picked up trash, which eventually runs off into the local watershed and into the ocean. People had a great time, got a workout and made a huge difference. We can all have fun and clean up our rivers, lands and coastlines, and collectively be a major part of the solution. Now that sounds great to me! Have fun on National Public Lands Day!