On my first canoe trip down the St. Croix this spring, the river was flooded and the trees were still leafless, with wood ducks swimming through the timber. Few other folks venture out when the bluffs, sky, and water are all gray, the chill seeping through clothes. It’s a wild season when it just feels good to be back on the river, and we don’t have to share it.
But we still encountered signs of people. My paddling partner and I saw a long line adorned with flags tangled in the upper branches of a silver maple. It must have once tethered a commercial balloon to the ground, flying over some housing development or other business looking for attention. There was no sign of the balloon that had carried it there.
On my second trip, we found a bright red Mylar balloon in a bunch of flotsam that said “Happy Birthday.” Surely that event was a joyous one, but long after the cake had been eaten, this garbage still fouled the river.
Many forms of litter plague the St. Croix River and the surrounding area. It hurts the river in several ways, it is preventable, and each piece of it can make the problem exponentially larger. When people see litter, it can unconsciously make them believe that trashing nature is acceptable. Littering creates a culture of more littering.
Like last spring, this trash is often the only sign of humans one sees on the river.
Not only is it unsightly, litter hurts water and wildlife. Much of it is brightly colored and attractive to many animals — confusing it for food, they often try to eat the material, and choke, starve, or otherwise suffer serious harm. They also often get tangled in attached ribbons and strings, making it hard to fly, feed, or otherwise function. Such entanglement is often fatal.
When materials like plastic and rubber break down into tiny pieces, fish and other small aquatic animals can consume it, ingesting harmful toxins and then passing those up the food chain as larger animals eat them.
What goes up must come down, we didn’t need Sir Isaac Newton to tell us that.
Helium balloons can travel great distances, and rarely return to the ground in sight of where they went up. But they always land somewhere.
Every time I was on the river this year, I saw trash: cans and bottles, flip-flops and cigarette butts.
This trash is often caught by snags along the river, where a fallen tree or two traps anything floating past. These snags also happen to be popular feeding grounds for several types of birds, otters, and other creatures.
Cigarette butts are particularly prevalent. As concern about plastic pollution grows, researchers have found that cigarette butts are the single most important object that is contaminating oceans and other areas.
“There are many reports of young children and pet dogs accidentally swallowing cigarette butts, and they’ve even been found in wild animals such as seabirds and turtles,” writes Dannielle Green, a researcher at Anglia Ruskin University. “Ingestion can cause vomiting and, in some cases, convulsions. The leachates from cigarette butts can be toxic to aquatic organisms such as bacteria, crustaceans, worms and fish.”
The people of Earth smoke an estimated 5.6 trillion cigarettes each year. Trillion. And two-thirds (4.5 trillion) are disposed of improperly — adding up to 1.69 billion pounds of litter.
That is trash totaling twice the weight of the Empire State Building, carelessly let loose to contaminate the Earth.
Smokers who enjoy the St. Croix can choose from numerous styles of pocket ashtrays to carry their butts to a trash can, with basic fireproof, smellproof models for as little at $7 on Amazon.com.
This year in Stillwater, community volunteers launched an initiative this year to reduce the number of cigarette butts that get discarded on the streets and sidewalks — and washed into the river through storm sewers.
Sustainable Stillwater got cigarette disposal units from the America the Beautiful Foundation, and they were installed by the Stillwater Public Works Department. Volunteers also stenciled about 60 storm drains downtown to inform the public that they drain into the river.
In September, during Community Thread’s River Rally, volunteers cleaned and stenciled another 30 drains near Pioneer Park, and contacted neighbors about adopting the drain.
“Most storm drains in Stillwater, Minnesota empty directly into the river, without treatment,” Sustainable Stillwater writes. “Some people may think these drains are trash receptacles for cigarette butts, used motor oil, leftover paint, pet waste or other pollutants. Storm drain labeling serves as an educational tool to remind people about the connection between storm drains and the St. Croix River.”
Lead volunteers Louise Watson and Cameron Murray say they plan to start an official storm drain adoption program in the city’s neighborhoods over the next year.
One snowy day recently, I wandered down the bluff through untracked powder, to go stand on the bank and see the river. There was a spring-fed creek that tumbled out of the ground and a few hundred yards to the river. Even on the coldest days of winter, it would run free.
But nothing else moved. I stood by where the creek made its final plunge to the St. Croix, where it cut through the floodplain mud, exposing loose rock below. Then some swans flew right over the tree tops in a V, softly trumpeting to each other.
When I looked down and saw the rusty beer can resting in the creek bed, I knew immediately how it had gotten there. It had not come down the creek, nor had it been tossed there by someone standing where I was.
This beer can had most likely been picked up by flood waters along the river somewhere upstream, and carried here to rest when the water was well over this point just a couple feet above where it is now.
I picked it up, tried to dump some of the mud and water out of it, and carried it back up the hill.
Don’t despair, detrash!
Litter is a problem caused by individuals, and can be solved at least in part by individuals.
A new movement based on the hashtags #detrash or #detrashed has gotten more people active in cleaning up trash, and sowing the seeds of stewardship.
With Instagram photos, YouTube videos, and more, #detrash practitioners show off their hauls and encourage their friends to do their part.
This 2009 study recommended six public policies that could help reduce cigarette litter in particular. The options include improved labeling, a deposit on cigarettes like returnable bottles, a fee to fund mitigation, litigation against the tobacco industry, increased fines, requiring biodegradable filters, and greater consumer education.
My personal pledge for 2020 and beyond is to remember a trash bag when I go on the river next summer, to collect as much garbage as I (safely) can, and to share photos here and on social media to hopefully inspire others to do their part.
Please support to St. Croix 360 to help promote river stewardship.