Monday, January 14, 2019

Trash-Free Potomac

The Potomac Watershed Roundtable met last Friday at the River View at the Jean R. Packard Center in the Occoquan Regional Park. It is a beautiful place to meet and the view of the Occoquan River was amazing. One of the speakers was Samantha Battersby the new Program Coordinator for the Trash-Free Potomac Watershed Initiatives at the Alice Ferguson Foundation.

Established in 1954, the Alice Ferguson Foundation aims to connect people to their local watersheds through education, stewardship and advocacy. The Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative seeks to prevent litter and the negative impacts of trash on our waterways. They coordinate the Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup working with the region’s soil and water conservation districts, community groups, employers, and schools. The Potomac River Watershed Cleanup is the largest regional event of its kind and happens over several weekends every April. It is a great opportunity to engage with the environment, and help restore the earth.

What started as a few cleanup events along the Potomac River is now a regional event spanning Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The Potomac River Cleanup is the largest regional event of its kind. Over the past 31 years 145,000 volunteers have picked up and removed a total of 7 million pounds of trash from the Potomac Watershed.

The Alice Ferguson Foundation has several programs designed for education and outreach: The Hard Bargain Farm which has interactive educational and outreach programs geared to elementary school children. Bridging The Watershed which operates programs for middle and high school students. The Trash-Free Potomac Watershed Initiatives Trash-Free Potomac Watershed Initiatives for citizens at large and the adult populations teaches how trash impacts the watershed and what we all can do to help. The Trash Free School Initiative examines trash at elementary schools with the students to develop plans to reduce trash.

As part of her presentation Samantha divided us into groups and handed each group a bag of trash that had been found in our watershed and asked us to line them up in order of how long it would take for the trash to breakdown. We all did pretty well considering that the room was filled with trash and environmental professionals. In order of decomposition (from fastest to never) we were given:
  1. Newspaper 
  2. Cardboard 
  3. Milk carton 
  4. Steel can 
  5. Aluminum can 
  6. Plastic bag 
  7. Plastic bottle 
  8. Glass bottle 
  9. Styrofoam  (never decomposes)

I will say that no one really knew how long it would take an aluminum can to decompose (400-600 years) we had all only thought about its recycling potential. Aluminum can be recycled over and over and made into food quality cans. Plastic bottles cannot be recycled into new plastic bottles- the fibers cannot be used to make food quality plastic and have to be used for fleece, carpeting or other product. Those plastic water bottles are a real problem. In recycling the problem with glass is that in the combined stream recycling the glass ends up in the bypass stream and there is too much trash ends up stuck to the glass and it cannot be recycled in our Material Recovery Facilities.

The one bin recycle system has failed. Now that China and India will no longer take our mixed recycles waste, we need to change our recycle system and our behaviors. The trash in our water ways ultimately comes from litter and improperly secured or illegally dumped of trash. Unfortunately, it is necessary to hold these river cleanups annually. Year after year volunteers clean our streams, rivers, and streambeds of trash that started as litter and carried along by stormwater and wind into our waterways and parks. Volunteers also remove items that were illegally dumped in the woods like old appliances and tires or carried by off by storms (backyard toys and boating equipment).

To solve this problem we need to change our behavior and reduce or eliminate the single use disposable products in our lives. Alice Ferguson Foundation is just one of the groups working towards that goal. In communities where there are plastic bag fees or outright bans, the number of plastic bags found in trash cleanups has fallen. Every year the Alice Ferguson Foundation holds a Trash Summit this year the theme was “Business Solutions to Plastic Pollution.” You can watch some of the videos at this link to learn about progress and idea to reduce trash. All of the solutions begin with us.

April 13, 2019 is the 31st Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup. Lead a cleanup, participate and work on prevention.

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