In Community Events, Education and Learning, Healthy, Resilient Rivers, Water Pollution, Water Quality

Litter in Our Nation’s Waterways and Communities

Litter, we have all seen itclogging the flow of our favorite neighborhood stream, or carelessly thrown to the side of the road waiting to be carried by the elements to the nearest waterway. Keep America Beautiful’s 2020 Litter Study estimated that over 50 billion pieces of litter are obstructing our roadways and waterways. When disposed of improperly the impacts of litter are numerous. It can lead to poor water quality, impaired drinking water supply, harm to plants and wildlife, clogged storm drains (which themselves can then cause flooding), breeding grounds for bacteria and disease that can be spread to humans, and pollution of outdoor recreation and tourism spaces. Litter not only alters our experience of the outdoors, it also negatively impacts the natural environment, and our community and individual health.

River Network has responded to the issue of litter for over a decade. With support from the Anheuser-Busch Foundation, the Coca-Cola Foundation, and Bridgestone, we have removed 1,549,356 pounds of litter from our nation’s waterways, hosted 581 litter clean-up events that engaged 73,404 volunteers, and have implemented long-term solutions for both water and communities across the U.S. Thanks to corporate support, River Network is not only removing and properly disposing of litter, but we are also engaging local communities in environmental stewardship while contributing to community health and wellbeing.

Putting Local Communities at the Forefront of Litter Management

Litter, like many things, is a complex problem requiring innovative and multifaceted approaches. To address litter, River Network does not follow a one-size-fits all strategy, instead leaning on integrating community-focused elements that help build and sustain a community of litter removal stewards working towards healthy and resilient waters. With Anheuser-Busch and Bridgestone, we support large-scale litter clean-ups that go above and beyond the traditional clean-up. Our partnership with Coca-Cola creates an opportunity for local groups to dive deeper into their communities’ litter problem by creating long-term solutions. While each partnership is unique, the thread that strings it all together is our shared vision for healthy waterways and communities across the U.S.  

Making a Difference Through Volunteerism

Each year and to celebrate World Environment Day, volunteers across the U.S. gather along the banks of their local waterway with gloves, pickers, and trash bags in tow- ready to rid their favorite river of litter. For the past 12 years our partnership with the Anheuser-Busch Foundation (AB) has united our network partners with local AB breweries and facilities to plan and host engaging and impactful litter clean-up events. During these events, volunteers not only remove litter, but they also deepen relationships with each other and the surrounding natural environment- encouraging a sense of stewardship within their local community. 

Either because these events are infused with a high degree of fun and celebration, or because they make positive impacts, many of our clean-ups are a staple in the community and are a “highlight of the year.” Annually, our local partner Living Lands and Waters (LLW) hosts a cleanup for AB employees along the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Louis. In 2022, a LLW staff member noted, “each year AB employees come to cleanups with enthusiasm and energy and are ready to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work to ensure positive results for their community and the environment!” Near Newark, New Jersey, AB employees have worked for many years alongside the Passaic River Coalition to improve an area along the Passaic River through litter clean-ups and plantings. Anheuser Busch’s dedicated volunteers contribute so much to transforming and maintaining a riverfront area that for years was blighted by residential homes wiped out by river flooding. The Little Falls community now enjoys the river, thanks to the consistent Anheuser Busch volunteer event in support of World Environment Day.” Whether by foot, kayak, or canoe, these volunteers are essential to improving their local waterways, fostering endless benefits for their communities.   

Connecting to Our Rivers Through Power in Numbers

The phrase, “power in numbers,” comes to mind when reflecting on our partnership with Bridgestone. Since 2012, and through Bridgestone’s Tires4ward program we have recycled over 300,000 tires across 1,000 clean-ups. This year our partnership is evolving into its next phase. In 2023 we will support three large-scale clean-ups that engage thousands of volunteers to remove thousands more pounds of litter. One featured clean-up will be the annual Great LA River Cleanup hosted by Friends of the LA River (FOLAR). This event “mobilizes thousands of Angelenos of all ages and backgrounds to make a hands-on, immediate impact on our River’s health at sites all along the river’s 51 miles.” In 2022, 1,700 volunteers removed an astonishing 50,363 pounds of litter from the upper section of the LA River. One volunteer reflected, “I loved seeing the results of a cleaner riverbank after we were finished in our area. I also enjoyed actually seeing the river up close.” Our partnership relishes moments like this- local volunteers expressing a sense of pride for the work they accomplished, as well as a newfound relationship to their local river. Now imagine how a similar feeling, when multiplied by the thousands, can positively impact the larger community- that is what we are doing with Bridgestone and our three local partners, pushing forward the idea of, “power in numbers.” 

Diving Deep and Stopping Litter at Its Source

Litter enters waterways in a variety of ways: wind and rain can carry loose trash to storm drains and later to creeks and rivers, some communities lack ample and/or accessible waste removal services, and in some cases, litter accumulates from illegal dumping. For over three years River Network has partnered with the Coca-Cola Foundation to help local groups address litter at its source by creating collaborative and sustainable, long-term solutions. Using a stepwise process our local partners develop a litter management plan, install a litter capture device, use collected litter data to find the source(s) of litter, and implement a behavior change campaign geared toward a specific audience, and secure long-term funding.  

To find and address the source(s) of litter, it requires careful research, observation and planning. As the foundation of this work, our local partners use River Network’s Waste in Our Waters: A Community Toolkit for Aquatic Litter Removal to identify litter hotspots throughout their community and to develop a litter management plan. Guided by their research, local partners install and maintain an in-stream litter capture device that essentially stops litter in its tracks until it is collected and disposed of properly. Beyond improving waterways, the collected litter is used to inform local partners, government employees, and local communities where potential litter sources exist. New this year, and to go one step further with this program, our partners will develop and implement a behavior change campaign (see here for an example from our partner, Impact by Design) geared toward a specific audience and a specific source of litter.  

Courtesy Freshwater Land Trust.

To date, we have worked in five community across the U.S., and the impact of addressing litter at its source is apparent, and long-reaching. One of our first partners in Birmingham, Alabama, Freshwater Land Trust, developed a strong collaboration of different stakeholders, and successfully secured more funding to install a total of 12 litter capture devices. Other partners have expressed how this approach is benefiting their community through education, engagement, and community wellbeing.  

Working Together One Piece of Litter at a Time

Our work isn’t just about removing litter, it’s also about our communities. When we work together to care for and improve our surrounding environments, we also support are the wellbeing of our individual selves and the greater community. Further, with each partnership we foster and nurture long-standing relationships that directly contribute to the health and resiliency of local communities and rivers across the U.S. We are grateful to our local partners and Anheuser-Busch, Bridgestone and Coca-Cola for their commitment to supporting litter management efforts. We look forward to our continued partnerships well into the future.

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