Originally posted on EcoGeneration.org on Nov 5, 2022
"The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?"
-1970 State of the Union
Rivers are abundant with life. Freshwater is home to over 100,000 species of plants and
animals. As for the human species, an estimated two billion people rely directly on rivers
for drinking water and food. But our planet’s millions of miles of rivers are polluted. In
fact, 60% of water pollution is directly related to litter.
Even if you don’t live near a river, your litter is likely to end up in one. How? Wind, rain, and storms. It was discovered that microplastics, tiny pieces of larger plastics that have broken down, have traveled 100 miles simply due to wind.
This means that even minor storms make it easy for litter of all shapes and sizes to enter rivers from all corners of our land. As we learned in the first installment of this series, there is a LOT of litter on land – 23.7 billion pieces along U.S. roadways to be exact. Add that to the litter directly on riverbanks, an estimated 25.9 billion pieces in the U.S., and you’ve got almost 50 billion pieces of plastics, paper, metals, and chemical-filled pieces that can end up in our life-giving rivers.
There are many ways in which litter negatively affects rivers. The most obvious is by
being a choking hazard to aquatic life. Animals of all sizes can find themselves choking
on litter, like plastics. As plastic is exposed to the elements, it begins to break down into
smaller and smaller pieces. It eventually turns into microplastics, which are less than 5
millimeters in length, then into nanoplastics that are 1 to 1,000 nanometers. And even if
an animal doesn’t choke on it, it still affects its body. Their bodies are not designed to
digest these foreign objects. The non-edible pieces can make the animal full and stop
eating, leading to malnourishment.
The quality of water is also greatly affected. As litter is breaking down in size, it is also releasing chemicals and becomes a breeding ground for organisms that make you sick. From seeping poisons like arsenic and formaldehyde to harboring bacteria, viruses, and parasite litter can wreak havoc. Furthermore, as this litter decays, it decreases the amount of oxygen found in the water, again, leading to an inhospitable environment for animals and plants.
Litter can also affect the habitat of river animals. It clogs rivers, affecting the flow of water, leads to entanglement which can cause death, and can make it more difficult for them to find food or create shelter. And in cases of animals that migrate, like salmon, it can inhibit their movements.
As we learned with litter on land, litter in rivers is a contributor to climate change. Flowing water breaks down materials like plastic that release harmful greenhouse gas chemicals. Though these emissions are far less than the transportation or animal agricultural industries, they do play a part.
It's time to take action! Here are a few things you can do to help reduce litter in our
1. As always, reduce what you consume, reuse what you can, recycle what is allowed,
and secure your bins to avoid fly-away trash.
2. If you see litter, pick it up!
3. Focus some cleanup time near rivers and riverbanks.
4. Tell companies, with your money and your voice, that you’re not interested in plastics
and single-use items and that you want them to change. Learn how to write a polluter.
5. Ask your school or work to go plastic-free. Need help creating an action plan? Trash
6. Pack out all wrappers, trash, & pet waste.
7. Share this article with friends and family and tell them you’re going to reduce your
consumption of single-use items and encourage them to do the same.
Jenna is the founder of Official Trash Pirates, an organization that focuses on teaching
children and their families about the effects of litter and climate change on our world.
She hopes to get people of all ages involved in solving the litter crisis and empowering
young people to make a difference in their community. Beyond her work with Trash
Pirates, she is the mother of an eight-year-old boy and wife of an active-duty Air Force
Learn more about Official Trash Pirates at OfficialTrashPirates.com or on their various