When the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, our nation’s forests and waters were hanging in peril. The bald eagle, a national symbol, had nearly gone extinct due to DDT contamination in lakes and rivers. The chemical, which was sprayed over entire neighborhoods to kill mosquitoes, made its way into local water bodies where it first contaminated fish, and then the eagles that ate them. In many places, raw sewage and pollution from factories flowed directly into rivers, lakes and oceans. According to a 1972 report by the U.S. government, only 36% of the streams that were tested in the U.S. were safe to swim in or fish from. Air hung heavy in many major cities, laced with sulfur dioxide from coal burning power plants and car exhaust from leaded gasoline.
Today, we have addressed many of the major environmental problems of the early to mid-1900’s. A 1972 ban on DDT has allowed bald eagle populations to soar; they were officially removed from the endangered species list in 1996. The U.S. government now reports that 60% of tested streams are safe for fishing and swimming, and the Clean Water Act now limits the amount of pollution pumped into our waterways via pipes. We still struggle with air pollution, but have phased out leaded gasoline and developed new technologies to limit the emissions of sulfur dioxide and other chemicals from factories and power plants. Environmental problems still exist but we’ve proven we can make a difference when we try.
For many people, Earth Day has become synonymous with community clean-ups and one-day planting events. Since 1986, the Ocean Conservancy has organized an annual beach and waterways cleanup that spans 40 states and 90 countries. During each year’s cleanup, volunteers count and record every single item of trash that they find on beaches, lakeshores and riverbanks. In 2015, volunteers picked up 16,186,759 pounds of plastic and paper bags, food wrappers, caps and lids, glass and plastic bottles, plastic cups, plates, forks, knives and spoons, aluminum cans, straws and other items of debris. Topping the list of commonly collected trash items were cigarette butts – 2,248,065 of them to be exact. Volunteers also found wildlife entangled in garbage, including 57 marine mammals, 22 sharks and rays, 440 fish, and 46 sea turtles.
Many people wonder how all of these bags, bottles and butts arrive in our rivers and oceans to begin with; are there really that many litterbugs hanging out on the beach? The reality is that most of this garbage originates on land, sometimes hundreds of miles inland from the ocean. Plastic bottles, bags, cigarette butts and other garbage in streets and roadside ditches are eventually washed into lakes and rivers when the snow melts or it rains. The Mississippi river gathers runoff (and trash) from 1,245,000 square miles and carries it to the Gulf of Mexico. So, a sandwich wrapper tossed along the side of the road in Grant could eventually wash ashore on a Caribbean island later this year.
This spring, Washington County is asking local community groups, schools, churches and residents to go out in their neighborhoods during Earth Week, April 17-23, to collect and dispose of litter to help clean up our communities and our greater watershed. When you’re done, send your name or group name, number of participants and location where you cleaned to PHE@co.washington.mn.us. You can also send photos to be featured on the county website and Facebook page.
The City of Grant is also sponsoring a community-wide clean-up event on Saturday, April 23 from 9am-noon. The city will provide a disposal site at the Grant City Hall and will also be collecting mercury thermometers for safe disposal and food for local food shelves. Contact Kim Points at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to organize a group for the Grant clean-up event.
For both events, volunteers can drop-off recyclables and potentially hazardous waste (oil, paint, aerosols) at the Washington County Environmental Center at 4039 Cottage Grove Dr. (open 8am-2pm on Sat., April 23). If you find litter that you feel unsafe handling, contact the Minnesota Duty Officer at 651-649-5451.