Put trash in its place

What can you do to make the world a cleaner place? Plenty

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


We’ve declared litter Public Enemy No. 1 and spent the summer educating the public about the dangers of litter and the huge expense associated with removing it from public spaces. We hope that has left you motivated to take the next step — whether that’s by pitching in with a community cleanup, picking up the litter in your neighborhood or just making an effort to generate less waste.

Need some ideas of how you can up your anti-litter game? We’ve got plenty.

Use less

Reusable coffee mug and bag.

Essentially, litter is just garbage that didn’t end up where it should. That means if we want to cut down on litter, a big step would be generating less trash to start with. One good way to generate less trash is to cut down on your use of single-use items. The United Nations Environment Program encourages this with the use of the slogan, “If you can’t reuse it, refuse it.”

The idea behind the slogan is to reduce the use of the disposable items, particularly single-use plastics. How? There are many simple steps you can take. For example, avoid paper plates and plastic cutlery — all things that are used once and thrown away. Or purchase a few reusable water bottles or coffee mugs rather than using plastic water bottles or paper coffee cups. If you pack a lunch each day or pack school lunches for your kids, use reusable bags and containers rather than disposable, single-use plastic bags. Keep a stash of reusable shopping bags in your car for errands and shopping trips rather than using plastic bags to haul your purchases.

Because plastic is the most problematic form of litter — both because there is so much of it and because it never really goes away — any steps to reduce your use of plastic is beneficial. Think about all the products you buy that come in plastic containers. Can you replace at least a few of them with products packaged without plastic? Or maybe you can skip the straw the next time you are eating out. And instead of disposable toiletry and hygiene items, look for more durable products. Buy razors with disposable blades instead of entirely disposable razors and look for toothbrushes that have replaceable heads rather than throwing away the entire toothbrush.

If the idea of making a lot of changes at once seems overwhelming, pick just one thing to get started. Maybe you can buy a reusable water bottle so you can stop using plastic ones, or you can buy a few reusable shopping bags to keep on hand for trips to the grocery store. Once the new routine becomes habit, try to add something else to your repertoire.

Plenty of ways to pitch in in the preserves

A person with a trash bag picking up litter.

If you’re a regular preserve visitor, there are plenty of things you can do — big and small — to keep these public spaces free of trash. One easy way to make sure anything you bring into the preserves doesn’t end up as litter is to adopt the pack it in, pack it out philosophy.

Quite simply, whatever you bring into the preserves you should bring out. If you packed a picnic lunch, pack up all your waste to dispose of at home. If you packed a backpack with some drinks and snacks for a long walk or hike, make sure the drink containers and any food wrappers make the trip home with you to be thrown away. If pack it in, pack it out isn’t an option, make sure to place all your trash in a trash can at the preserve.

Of course, this pack it in, pack it out philosophy applies to any public spaces you visit, not just the preserves. Packing a lunch for a trip to your neighborhood playground? Pack it in, pack it out. Visiting a state park for a long hike? Pack it in, pack it out. Taking a trip to a national park? Pack it in, pack it out.

If there’s a preserve that’s special to you, or one close to your home or neighborhood that you think can use a helping hand to keep it clean, consider adopting it through our Adopt a Preserve program. Through the program, community groups, families and even individuals can adopt a preserve or trail section and commit to spending time each month to keep it clean.

Adopt a Preserve participants go through Forest Preserve volunteer training and commit to spending four hours per month working in their adopted area. That four hours is total for the group, so two people spending two hours each or four people spending one hour each on cleanup duty fulfills the requirement. After a three-month commitment, a sign can be installed in the adopted preserve or trail honoring the group’s or individual’s commitment.

If you have a group that would like to help with a cleanup in a less formal way, that’s an option as well. Groups of about 15 or more, including school groups, community groups and even family groups, can contact volunteer services supervisor Emily Kenny at [email protected] to inquire about setting up a cleanup day at one of our preserves or along one of our trails.

Anglers can help us keep preserves clean and safe for wildlife by always properly disposing of their used fishing line. The District provides monofilament recycling containers at several of its premier fishing spots. If there isn’t a container handy, make sure to cut your line into short pieces, about 6 inches to 12 inches long, before placing it in a trash can with a tight-fitting lid. If possible, take your line with you to recycle later.

The Forest Preserve District also regularly holds “Fishing for Trash” programs throughout the warmer months at Monee Reservoir. Through the program, visitors can get a pair of gloves and a bag from the concession window and then pick up any trash they find during their visit. When the bag of trash is turned in, participants receive a token gift.

You can take the idea of “Fishing for Trash” a step further by bringing along gloves and a bag on your next walk or hike and picking up any trash you find along the way.

Turn to technology

A person holding a phone.

Litter — there’s an app for that? It turns out, there is. Litterati is a citizen-science effort with a mission of eradicating the world of litter. Using the Litterati app, people can participate in the global effort by photographing a piece of litter, then uploading it to the map, which will tag the location of the litter. You can also use the app to challenge others to keep an area clean or invite friends to help in the mission to rid the world of litter.

Similarly, National Geographic has a Marine Debris Tracker app that collects data about litter that can be used for scientific research. Users simply download the app to their device and then record information about litter they see wherever they are — whether it’s in their backyard, at the beach or anywhere in between. The data generated by the app can then be used by researchers and scientists investigating solutions for plastic pollution locally and globally.

Photos via Shutterstock

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