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Trash-free Potomac River Goal Won't be Met

But as we keep trying, we can learn to appreciate trash's other side.

For years, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has championed a “Trash Free Potomac Watershed by 2013.”

I’ve often wondered about that goal. It reminded me of when I worked for the World Health Organization, whose slogan at the time was “Health for All by the Year 2000.”

A trash-free river? It sounds unlikely. Just about everything we produce, use and throw out finds its way into the river, like a force of nature. Halting it would practically mean abolishing Western Civilization.

So, with 2013 looming, and on the eve of the foundation’s 24th Potomac River Watershed Cleanup, I decided to call the group and ask what’s up with their deadline.

Coordinator Elena Rosen confirmed the obvious: there would be no trash-free river by 2013.

Instead, the goal has been redefined. Rather than a trash-free river, the foundation next year will celebrate a string of accomplishments that it hopes will make the goal achievable. Rosen cited new regulations, such as Montgomery County’s bag law. Many local police departments have signed onto this month’s 2nd annual Litter Enforcement Month.

Two anti-trash alliances have been formed, one in Maryland, the other in Virginia. A “trash treaty” calling for anti-trash measures has more than 10 pages of signatures of local political leaders.

You can even become a litter monitor and help identify trash hotspots up and down the river and its tributaries.

Trash’s other side

But even with this growing momentum, the goal of a truly trash-free river seems doubtful. Is this necessarily a bad thing?  

Maybe not. Here are a few reasons.

For one thing, as long as the Potomac has trash, we will (hopefully) have trash cleanup days. Since the foundation’s cleanup began in 1989, more than 100,000 volunteers and some 425 partner organizations have hauled out some 3 million tons of the stuff. 

While many of the volunteers are longtime river hounds, who already know and love the river, some are getting their first hands-on Potomac River experience.  

In one cleanup, I joined a group of downtown lawyers and their families, each wearing a neatly pressed green tee shirt. Whatever their initial misgivings, they rose to the occasion. A woman peeled plastic bags from some flood-swept bushes.  Children pounced on beer bottles as if they were on an Easter egg hunt. A trio of mud-splattered attorneys pried a truck tire out of the muck.

For them, and for many other cleanup volunteers, the river has become something personal. They have a stake in its protection.

Trash helps see something else about the river: how much we’ve changed it. Trash serves as a visual reminder that the river today is very different from when the first Europeans arrived, in ways that we can’t directly observe. For example, few fishermen realize that our familiar bass and catfish weren’t part of the river’s original ecosystem.   

Or take water quality. A plastic bottle bobbing along in the current signals that much more is being washed into the river, such as chemicals from our lawns, homes, industries and farms.

Trash also tells us something about how we think about nature, and how our ideas often have a lot to do with our personal likes and dislikes. Not surprisingly, our fellow creatures don’t always agree.

I find a battered piece of aluminum stuck in a weed bed. Turning it upside down, I discover that it’s become home to a menagerie of insect larvae and shrimp-like scud, all scurrying for safety. I snorkel down to an algae-festooned tire, and a couple of sunfish emerge from their man-made sanctuary to greet me. 

Even the river seems to have its own ideas about trash; some of them mischievous, such as during a flood, when it wedged a blue plastic barrel high into the fork of a tree across the river from Carderock. It’s been there now for over a year.  

Finally, trash can be interesting visually. I think so, anyway. Take a look at the photos accompanying this article. With a little rearrangement (with thanks and apologies to British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy), even humble and despised items take on new life.

So by all means, sign up for a trash cleanup. Put on your boots, get wet and muddy. Take a photo of your haul and post it on Facebook. But while doing so, remember what Mark Twain said about Wagner’s music: it’s better than it sounds.


Post your photos on Patch by uploding them to this story. What do you think of Roger's comments? Do you see a positive side of the trash in the Potomac River?



Ana de la Rosa April 18, 2012 at 04:58 PM
Start with the school! Children coming off the school bus litter our street with food wraps that they nibble on while walking / being driven by parents or guardian. Check out the pathways leading from a 7-11 store to Richard Montgomery School. In spite of several trash cans along the pathway, kids choose to throw food wraps, soda and pop cans/ ottles all over the place ... as though it is fun to do. Maybe anti-littering sign with fines imposed can be set up. And yes, some law-enforcement officer can be around during break or lunch times. Teachers can also teach anti-littering pointers to students of all levels.
Ana de la Rosa April 18, 2012 at 05:02 PM
Start at / with the schools! Children coming off the school bus litter our street with food wraps that they nibble on while walking / being driven by parents or guardian. Check out the pathways leading from a 7-11 store to Richard Montgomery School. In spite of several trash cans along the pathway, kids choose to throw food wraps, soda and pop cans/ bottles all over the place ... as though it is fun to do. Maybe anti-littering signs and fines imposed for violators can be set up. And yes, some law-enforcement officer can be around during break or lunch times. Teachers can also teach anti-littering pointers to students at all levels.
Roger Hamilton April 19, 2012 at 01:18 PM
Good point Ana. A lot of people think that trash in the river comes from antisocials dumping garbage bags over stream banks. Actually, the problem is often far from the river itself, where things that gets tossed or left on the ground get washed down the nearest storm drain, and so begin their journey. So it's school children, moms, dads, everyone.

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