Happy Earth Day! 51 years ago today, environmental advocates from many different backgrounds gathered together in an act of protest to speak out against environmental degradation. According to EarthDay.org “Groups that had been fighting individually against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife united on Earth Day around these shared common values. Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urban dwellers and farmers, business and labor leaders.” Today in 2021, we are still fighting some of the same battles against polluting industries and we need to work together and lean on each other in order to reach a resolution for a swimmable and fishable Anacostia River.
Over the past year, we have faced immeasurable challenges, loss, and pain. For many of us, getting outside to bike, hike, boat, and play in our nearby parks and waterways has been an important way for us to relieve stress, connect with our loved ones, and feel lightness and joy. From our incredible national parks in the District like Anacostia Park, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and Fort Dupont to our state and city parks and trails, like Bladensburg Waterfront Park and the Anacostia River Trail, we have found a deeper appreciation for our natural spaces and a new fervor to protect them.
At AWS we have been truly blown away by the dedication of our volunteers, donors, and supporters who continue to show up in various ways to protect and restore the Anacostia River. This Saturday, we will host our Earth Day Cleanup, a long-standing tradition that dates back to the founding of AWS in the 1990s. This year, we will have over 1,000 volunteers spread out throughout the watershed, using appropriate safety precautions, and helping to keep trash out of our waterways. This year, we are showing up to say that increased usage of our parks and green spaces does not have to mean increased degradation of the environment. We have antidocatally noticed much higher usage of single-use plastic materials in takeout containers, product packaging, and PPE. While we’re out on Saturday cleaning up, we’ll also be keeping count of the disposable masks that we find to see if our intuition about this issue is correct.
Even if you are not able to join us in person on Saturday for our Earth Day Cleanup, there are still many ways that you can help:
Learn about trash
Educate yourself about plastic pollution and learn about the ways that single-use plastics are harming our environment and our community. Much of what we currently think of as being “recycled” is shipped to other countries and being dumped/burned causing detrimental impacts on humans and the environment.
A couple of really popular documentaries from the past year were Plastic Wars and The Story of Plastic which dive deeper into the issues in the industry and the impacts plastics have on people and the environment.
Reduce your footprint
Find ways to reduce your personal waste stream. We all know about the 3Rs but there are a few more I’d like to share to give us concrete ways to reduce our overall environmental impact, like Refusing to buy single use items or trying to Refurbish or Repair old stuff before buying new stuff. (Thanks to Ohio Sea Grant for sharing this graphic!) Remember, recycling is the last R for a reason. We cannot recycle our way out of this problem. The current system cannot adequately handle the amount of single-use plastic we produce and throw out every day. Only about 8.7 percent of all plastics were recycled in 2018.
No wishcycling! If you are not sure if an item is recyclable, call your local recycling facility to find out or just send it to landfill. Contamination leads to major issues for recyclers who need to sort and process our recyclable waste before it can be resold to manufacturers to make new products. Last night we had the opportunity to sit down with Sean Ryan, Senior Manager of Operations at Prince George's County Department of Environment recycling facility. He shared lots of great details about how to recycle right in our region and we were able to take a peek into their process by watching this video, that gives an overview of what happens to our recycling after we put it out in our curbside bins. The Alice Ferguson Foundation maintains a great library of resources for dealing with waste in several of the jurisdictions in our region.
The way that we can have the biggest impact is through collective action. Whether we are organizing campaigns to tell major companies to change their product packaging or pushing local governments for stricter regulation on single use plastics, we are stronger together. Many of you were a part of the advocacy that AWS did to push for the plastic bag ban and styrofoam ban in the District of Columbia! Your volunteer hours picking up trash contributed to the data we used to push for that legislation. Even after Earth Day, you can organize a cleanup in your neighborhood or you can share items in local neighborhood groups on social media, like the Buy Nothing Project.
We can all try to work as hard as we can to take personal actions to reduce waste but ultimately, producers need to change their production practices. How can they create products that can more easily be recycled? Can they create products with recycled materials? Can they help create systems at scale that can process and use the recycled material that is collected?
We have come a long way in the environmental movement since 1970 but there is still a long way to go to truly reach a circular economy where our natural resources, our community health and our economy are strong and vibrantly working together but I know that together, we can make real change happen.