AWS Trashology – Topic 1: What is a number one trash item found in streams?


Some say grocery store plastic bags are the #1 trash item.  Others say plastic bottles, while still others say styrofoam.  What is really the number one trash item found?

A short answer to this question is it depends on where you are and how data is collected.  Another short answer is that all statements are correct.

When you walk along a tributary to a larger river such as the Anacostia River, you will likely see plastic bags and assume this is our #1 trash item.  Plastic bags are easily snagged by vegetation such as tree branches, so they are often seen in and along tributaries.  Jim Collier and Cynthia Collier, contractors for the AWS, conducted a survey and wrote a report on trash in 2008 titled ANACOSTIA WATERSHED TRASH REDUCTION PLAN.  According to their survey, approximately 47% of trash pieces that were counted in streams were plastic grocery bags-- the #1 category.

Streams Trash Composition.jpg

Interestingly, the #1 item that composes street trash is paper.  We see paper trash often on the street and would naturally agree with this data.  Paper is not often seen in tributaries, as it disintegrate in water.  Aesthetically, a point of view would be that paper products are a better alternative to plastic; however, they are made from trees and it is also environmentally problematic.  Once in the waterways they suck up oxygen from the water when they decay and contribute to low dissolved oxygen.  Disintegrated paper also clouds the water.

When you stand on the shore of the tidal Anacostia River, you would see more bottles, cans and food wrappers such as potato chip bags, than plastic bags. 

An interesting finding here is that a trash item that most people don’t complain about, became the #1 item on the shores of the tidal Anacostia-- the food wrapper. They haven't gained much attention from the general public, elected officials, and even from environmentalists, probably because they don't float on the surface of the water.  However, in actuality this trash category is one of the most problematic trash items because aquatic animals have been eating them.

If you strain trash out of flowing stream water or visit one of our trash traps, you'd most likely see the main culprit to be food wrappers.  This will be Topic 2 in our Trashology series.

In summary, the #1 trash you will see in the environment will change depending on where you are, and how data is collected as shown below.

Location (Where you are)

 Likely #1 trash


Paper Products


Grocery Plastic Bags

Shores on larger rivers such as the tidal Anacostia

Food Wrappers (such as potato chip bags), Bottles & Cans, Plastic Grocery Bags

On the water in larger rivers such as the tidal Anacostia, Potomac Rivers and in the Chesapeake Bay

Bottles & Cans, Styrofoam

When you strain trash out of flowing stream water

Food Wrappers




AWS Trashology – Topic 1: What is a number one trash item

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AWS Trashology – Topic 1: What is a number one trash item

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