Plastic has become ubiquitous in our daily lives, used for everything from food and beverage containers to industrial products. But as its use has increased, so, too, has plastic pollution of our waterways.
In fact, plastic and plastic items are a primary source of marine debris in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's Marine Debris Program. Plastic isn't the only culprit, because anything man-made can become litter. Besides plastic, other common sources of marine debris include glass, metal, rubber, paper, cloth and wood.
Within the Forest Preserve District's preserves we often see evidence of this in the form of litter and debris along the shorelines of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. Objects of all kinds can be seen littering the waterways, but plastic seems particularly pervasive.
Among the District's preserves, Rock Run Rookery Preserve in Joliet is the focus of a River Shoreline Cleanup from 9-11 a.m. on Saturday, April 27, to help combat the problem of plastic littering the shoreline. At the rookery, plastic and other debris comes both from litter and improperly disposed of trash as well as flooding on the adjacent Des Plaines River that spills over into the preserve.
"The thing to remember is plastic floats. That's why we find plastic littered along the shorelines of our rivers," said Erin Ward, an interpretive naturalist at the District's Four Rivers Environmental Education Center. "As the water levels come up, the plastic floats up. When the water recedes, it drops the plastics behind."
Plastic is also of particular concern because it never truly goes away, she said. Instead, plastic will break down into smaller and smaller pieces until eventually the pieces are so small you can't see them. These tiny pieces are called microplastics.
These tiny microplastics are so small they pass through water-filtration systems and eventually make their way into our water supplies, including the Great Lakes and oceans, according to the NOAA. And we have yet to even begun to understand how these tiny plastic particles affect both us and wildlife species.
Rock Run Rookery Preserve is unique among the District's preserves in that much of the garbage seen along the shoreline comes from the Des Plaines River.
"When the Des Plaines River floods, the rookery floods," Ward said. "Some of the trash in the river flows into the rookery during flooding periods, and then the water recedes and trash is left behind."
Sometimes during extreme rain events, wastewater treatment plants are forced to overflow because of the influx of water. This doesn't happen as often today as it did in the past, because of improved technologies, Ward said, but it does cause even more litter to spill over into our waterways. This is why you should never flush plastic items and other garbage down the toilet.
The portion of the Des Plaines River that runs through Will County connects to the old Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and was for a long time very polluted. Today, because of water-conservation efforts, the water quality is much improved, but some of that old waste remains, Ward said.
"Some of the things we are picking up could be 10, 20, 30 years old," she said. "(These objects are) just making their way down the river."
Marine debris isn't just unsightly; it also poses many problems. One of the many issues posed by plastic debris is that as it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, animals that live in and around the water may consume it, according to the NOAA.
In some cases, animals may mistake the litter for food, or it may be attached to their usual foods or simply in the water they consume. Ingesting these pieces can be harmless, but may also cause injuries or intestinal blockages and even result in an animal's death, the NOAA reports.
Plastic debris can also cause injuries to wildlife, because animals can become stuck or entangled in it. In 2018, a pelican was rescued from McKinley Woods – Kerry Sheridan Grove after it was injured by getting stuck in fishing line. The animal had to be euthanized because of the severity of its injuries.
Litter also poses a problem because animals begin to see it as part of their natural habitat.
"We've found bird nests that are made completely of plastic," said Tina Riley, facility supervisor for the Forest Preserve District. "Literally there's nothing natural in the nest."
What we're doing
The River Shoreline Cleanup is a good way to see the problem of litter firsthand and be a part of the solution. The litter at the rookery comes from many sources, and this is a good way to see the volume of it and what kind of trash ends up along the shoreline there.
Beyond flooding and simply littering, trash makes its way into the environment in many ways, many of which are not intentional, Ward said. Trash blows out of garbage trucks or open car doors, or an animal gets in a garbage can and strews it about. Sometimes it simply blows away on a windy day. For example, Ward said they often find balls along the shoreline.
"A nice, gentle breeze just blows them right in," she said.
During the cleanup, participants will spend a few hours picking up the debris littering the rookery shoreline. The District will provide gloves, bags, buckets and some pickers, but if you have your own gloves feel free to bring them.
"We would love to have people participate in the shoreline cleanup," Ward said. "The more the merrier!"
Due to the proximity to water and the unpredictable nature of the debris that will be collected, this program is limited to individuals 14 years of age or older. Registration is required by Monday, April 22.
What you can do
If you can't make it to the River Shoreline Cleanup, you can still do your part to keep our environment clean. A good first step is to make sure all trash is properly disposed of and secured, so it isn't loose or able to fly away. This helps ensure waste and recyclables make their way to the proper facilities. You can also regularly check your yard, or even your street or neighborhood, for trash, picking up loose items and properly disposing of them.
If you've ever seen a plastic bag blowing in the wind or stuck high up in a tree, then you know firsthand the problems these bags can cause. These bags are pervasive in our lives, and although they are plastic, they cannot be recycled through curbside recycling programs because they will damage the recycling plant equipment. However, you can recycle these bags at many large grocery stores and retailers, but an even better option is to start using reusable bags, Ward said. You can even keep some in your car so you always have a few handy.
It's also very important to never flush plastic items down the toilet, Ward advises. Let your toilet do only the work it was designed for: flushing human waste and toilet paper.
And fishing line should always be disposed of.
"Monofilament is hard to see, and many times wildlife cannot see it and they get tangled up," Ward said.
Anglers should cut their fishing line up into smaller pieces and properly dispose of it. The Forest Preserve District provides fishing line recycling receptacles at its premier fishing locations: Isle a la Cache, Lake Chaminwood, Lake Renwick Preserve's Turtle Lake, Monee Reservoir, Rock Run Rookery and Whalon Lake.
But remember that these monofilament receptacles are not intended to be used for other garbage and recyclables.
"They are small tubes meant for fishing line," Ward said. "Often, we find three empty water bottles crammed in there, and then you can't get the fishing line in, so that's a problem."
A Global Perspective
It's important to remember that the land and the sea are always connected, and what we do here in Will County can have effects far from home. Our streams and rivers connect to larger rivers, with the water eventually flowing into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Cleaning our rivers and shorelines here can benefit the water quality and ecosystems downstream from here.
At the same time, it's also important to understand that the litter we see in our rivers didn't necessarily originate here. The Des Plaines River is long — 133 miles, with 105 miles in Illinois and the remaining in southern Wisconsin — and the problems of litter in the river cannot be blamed on one group or entity, Ward said. Instead, the many people who live near the river can be part of the solution.
"A lot of cities, towns and villages call the basin their home, millions of people," she said. "Millions of people that can help the problem, millions of people that can make a difference."
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