At the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an object as small as a piece of Styrofoam poses a big problem. Because whether it can be held in a volunteer’s hand or just fits into the bed of a truck, litter is at the center of the non-profit organization’s work.
Founded in 1954, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has an office in Washington, D.C., and an historic farmhouse-turned-workspace in southern Maryland. Whether it is through teacher trainings, field studies or volunteer clean-ups, the organization works to promote the sustainability of the Potomac River watershed. And one of the biggest issues facing the Potomac River is trash.
Most of what the Alice Ferguson Foundation does touches on litter: its danger is discussed with students on field studies; programs, events and meetings are often trash-free; and the office culture is one of low- to no-waste. You won’t find disposable plates or cups in the kitchen, and cloth napkins are washed, dried and reused on-site. Food waste is given to the pigs on Hard Bargain Farm, and bathrooms are equipped with hand-dryers. Clara Elias, Program Manager for the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, puts it simply: “We’re committed to reducing trash.”
Image courtesy kryn13/Flickr
In the Potomac River watershed, there are two kinds of trash. First, Elias explained, there is the new litter that is generated on a regular basis, like the plastic bags, cigarette butts and beverage bottles found on streets and sidewalks. Second, there is the legacy litter left behind long ago at a particular site, like a pile of old tires sitting on the edge of a parking lot. Across the watershed, trash is both an urban and rural issue, although it differs between regions. While bottles and cans often float down the river from urban centers, rural areas that are without strong recycling programs face issues with illegal dumping of appliances, cars and even deer carcasses.
Over the 26 years that the Alice Ferguson Foundation has hosted the Potomac River Watershed Clean Up, the trash in the Potomac has changed. Volunteers used to pick up a lot of plastic bags, but after bag fees were passed in the District of Columbia, plastic bags in District waters dropped 50 percent. Similar legislation passed in Montgomery County caused this number to drop 70 percent. There was a change, too, in the plastic bags themselves, as volunteers now find more pet waste and newspaper bags than the shopping bags that carry the five-cent fee. Even so, Elias noted that at least half of the trash picked up along the Potomac is recyclable, which indicates more must be done to slow the flow of pollution into our rivers and streams.
“In American culture, we’re so used to having so many disposable things. We’re not taught how much energy it takes to dispose of [all of] it,” Elias said. So the Alice Ferguson Foundation teaches people just that.
On a Bridging the Watershed field study, students play a game of Trash Tag and learn about street sweepers, trash traps and other litter-reducing best management practices. On the Hard Bargain Farm, students sprinkle a shower curtain with food coloring, sand and pieces of paper. When the curtain gets wet, the pretend fertilizer, sediment and trash are washed downstream. And before their visit to the site, students are given a guide to packing a trash-free lunch. After their meal, students weigh the paper napkins, straw wrappers and other leftover trash and compete with other school groups to produce the least amount.
In addition to its field studies, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has also had success with its Trash Free Schools initiative, which helps students teach their peers, lead their own cleanups and change their school’s culture to produce less waste.
Trash is “tangible and physical, unlike energy or [stormwater] runoff, which are things you can’t see or touch or smell,” Elias said. “It builds momentum among students. Trash is a great issue for students to learn about.”
For the past decade, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has led Project Clean Stream--a vast network of organized annual trash cleanups along the Bay's many tributaries--to help clean up the Bay and connect residents to their local waterways.
During this year's unified day of service on Saturday, April 6, a group of 13 volunteers gathered near the small town of Marydel on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where resident Carol Sparks (not pictured) had reported an illegal dump site along a drainage ditch running adjacent to her property.
According to Sparks, residents from two nearby trailer parks often travel along the foot path adjacent to the ditch, and some have been dumping trash here for years. "I've called everybody and it seemed like nobody wanted to do anything about it. I finally contacted Debbie Rowe, the mayor of Marydel, and she's the one who organized this group, bless her heart."
"I got a call from the property owner that the ditch was in disrepair," said Rowe (below left, with volunteer Wilbur Levengood, Jr.), who had recently learned about Project Clean Stream through the Choptank Tributary Team, a volunteer watershed group from Easton, Md. "To be honest, I didn't know this was back here."
Jennifer Dindinger chairs the Choptank Trib Team, which was searching for neglected sites in neighboring Caroline County where they could make a bigger impact during this year's Project Clean Stream effort. "You don't see trash floating down the Choptank River, but there are places like this that, although it might not end up in the main stem of the Bay, negatively impact life along the tributaries to the river."
Despite the strong odor and armed with garden rakes and stainless steel dip nets, Project Clean Stream volunteers spent their Saturday morning combing through layers of algae in the stagnant drainage ditch. "It's just a nice thing to do on a sunny day," said William Ryall, a fellow Choptank Trib Team volunteer and wetland restoration engineer from Easton, Md. "All of these ditches are connected to the Bay, so it's really important to get this stuff out of here."
"We need everyone to understand how important the drainage is to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and what it will do health-wise and for the environment if we do it correctly," said Wilbur Levengood, Jr., president of the Caroline County Commissioners. "We don't need to bring huge machines in here and disturb a lot of earth to achieve the drainage, we just need to keep it clean."
According to Levengood, the many drainage ditches in Caroline County are an environmental compromise critical to this landscape. "Without these ditches, ponds and wetlands like the one next door to here would otherwise require chemical pesticides to control the mosquito population. Cleaning up the trash will lower the water level in this ditch by a few inches and get the water moving again."
While most of the trash collected from the Marydel site was of the household variety--36 bags total, including diapers, beverage containers and rotting food--a tell-tale oil slick is evidence of even more hazardous materials lying beneath the surface.
According to Levengood, non-salvageable appliances like television sets and mattresses, as well as toxic materials like motor oil and other automotive fluids that cost money to discard, are often thrown into the drainage ditches along Caroline County roads.
"It's not just necessarily that it looks bad. It's an all-around health hazard, and if we don't keep the water going it's just going to get stagnant and cause mosquitoes and more problems," said Mayor Rowe, who recruited local youth to help with the cleanup. "Now that we know it's here, we can all help as a community to help keep it clean and it'll be safe for everybody."
"My mom is friends with Ms. Debbie [Rowe], so she asked if I could come help with cleaning up trash from the ditch," said Gary Colby of Marydel (top), who in turn recruited his friend Daniel Santangelo. "I just wanted to help out Marydel," Santangelo said.
According to Rowe, part of the dumping problem stems from the challenge of cross-cultural communication. More than half of Marydel's population are Hispanic or Latino immigrants, but today's effort to reach the town's young people seems to be paying off.
"I just offered to help my buddies out," said Carlos Martinez (left), who moved to Marydel last year from Mexico City and volunteered with friends Omar Fuentes (center) and Jordy Cordova (right). "I know it's not young people littering because I know my friends."
"I think we just need to recycle more," said Cordova. Fuentes agrees. Like Mayor Rowe, he says "I never even noticed the trash in the ditch, and I've lived here for 10 years."
During a well-deserved break from the cleanup, Mayor Rowe and the other volunteers discussed the idea of posting bilingual signs to explain the ditch's importance in controlling the mosquito population, and to warn of health risks associated with litter and water pollution. Omar Fuentes and Jordy Cordova agree that signs in Spanish might help curb the littering problem, and promised to talk to their neighbors about the ditch. For first-time cleanup volunteer Wilbur Levengood, Jr., this point made the purpose of the day's effort overwhelmingly clear: "This project puts all aspects of people together working for the better, and we just need more of that."
On a cold day in January, I found myself driving down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Unlike thousands of others, I wasn’t traveling into the District to celebrate our president on Inauguration Day, but to honor another great American: Martin Luther King, Jr., whose work we now commemorate with a national Day of Service. Because while Martin Luther King Day is a national holiday, it is also a day “on”—not a day “off.” And on that day, two conservation organizations—the Sierra Club and the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC)—were sponsoring a small stream cleanup at Pope Branch Park.
Pope Branch is a unique stream. According to Sierra Club field organizer and cleanup host Irv Sheffey, it is the only stream whose headwaters originate in the District and drain into the Anacostia River. So, local District residents have a greater incentive to clean up the waterway—and more control over what goes in it.
The first time I joined a cleanup at Pope Branch was five years ago, with my daughter, who is now in college in Florida. In 2008, we removed massive amounts of trash from the streambed—old appliances, couches, car parts and more—most of it a result of dumping. This time, there was still a fair amount of trash, but most of it was plastic bottles, soda and beer cans and food wrappings, all consequences of stormwater runoff. Local community organizers saw this reduced trash load as a positive sign of progress, and I did, too. But even as the residents who stopped to thank us for our work said they were pleased with the progress that had been made, they reminded us that there is still more work to do.
That same message resonates for both the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay: progress is being made, but there is a lot more work to do. So let’s continue to look for opportunities to help local organizations—like the Sierra Club, the ECC or the countless others across the watershed—in their ongoing restoration efforts. We can do this, but to truly succeed, we must all do our part to once again have clean streams, healthy rivers and a restored Bay.