Trash Talk – Are River Cleanups the Solution?

A pile of trash
August 9, 2018

By Erika Berglund

Let’s talk about trash. It may be a less than desirable topic, but what is far more undesirable is the trash itself. It’s piling up in our landfill, it’s littering our river, and it’s threatening our future prosperity. The time is now to reconsider our wasteful ways and work toward changing them.

The Clark Fork Coalition’s signature community volunteer event is the Annual Clark Fork River Cleanup. Each spring since the cleanup began fifteen years ago community members generously volunteer a Saturday morning to cleaning up several tons of trash from and along a 15-mile stretch of the urban river corridor. This year 4.8 tons of trash and .54 tons of recyclables were removed from the river. That is certainly a reason to pat ourselves on the back, but is an annual cleanup the solution to our trash problem?

Last year, in a continued effort to remove trash from the Clark Fork and keep our waterways clean, the Coalition launched TrashLine. TrashLine aims to put the power of reporting trash and mobilizing cleanups in subscribers’ hands. By texting “TRASHY” to 33222, mobile users receive trash alerts and can also submit reports of trash hotspots along the river. Upon receiving trash alerts, users are encouraged to clean up the reported trash on their own time. It’s an exciting new crowd sourcing effort to keep our community informed about and involved with river cleanups year-round. Still the question persists, are cleanups the best way to solve the issue of trash in our waterways?

The answer is no, cleanups are not the real solution. 

Cleanup volunteers with trashThe annual River Cleanup and TrashLine were created because there was and continues to be a consistent need to clean up trash from our river. TrashLine subscribers, cleanup volunteers, and the Clark Fork Coalition can and will continue to do the good deed of cleaning up trash in the Clark Fork River but that is simply not enough nor is it the most valuable use of our time. The solution to our trash problem lies upstream, figuratively speaking. We must start by asking, where is it all coming from and how can we stop it from entering the river in the first place?

In general, Montanans have a big trash problem—generating 66% more trash than the average American at 7.26 lbs per person per day. Missoulians, in particular, recycle less than the average Montanan with only 19% of our trash making it to recycling facilities. With that kind of trash being produced and a shockingly inaccessible and inconvenient recycling system in place, it’s no surprise that much of that trash finds its way into our urban rivers.

We’ve probably all heard of the ‘3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ but do we actually practice them? In the interest of maintaining the status quo and for fear of inconvenience, the 3 R’s are often dismissed as a greenie mantra. But our trash problem affects us all. Montana’s population size and distance from industrial recycling facilities is partially to blame for our mind-boggling waste production but the rest of the blame lies with consumers and businesses. At our current rate of trash disposal, Missoula’s landfill only has about 10 years left before it reaches its capacity. That doesn’t include our inevitable population growth. The need to divert waste from our landfill through reduced use of disposable goods, reuse of durable goods, and recycling of the rest is pressing. There is also the significant issue of food waste, which can be avoided through conscientious consumption and composting.

Luckily there is hope for waste reduction in Missoula, with the City and local non-profits and businesses leading the way. Last month Missoula’s “Zero by Fifty” proposal was presented to the City Council and given an initial green light to move forward. This plan aims to achieve 90% waste reduction in the city of Missoula by the year 2050 and does so with a series of carefully considered goals and objectives. In addition to the city’s plan, there are many local organizations and businesses already diligently working to support a zero waste community. To name just a few: Soil Cycle and Missoula Compost Collection offer curbside compost, Home ReSource and Missoula ReStore provide affordable reuse building materials and household products, and i.e. Recycling offers curbside glass pickup and a series of community glass drop off days. Together the city and local non-profits and businesses are paving the way for a waste free Missoula.

3 people picking up trashThat said, policy and good intentions can only get us so far. In order for Missoula to reach this ‘Zero by Fifty’ goal, individuals and the community as a whole must commit to the 3 R’s.

Reducing waste is not a political issue nor should it be a personal one. Who wants to live in a city inundated with trash? Make no mistake; breaking ourselves of our wasteful habits does require effort and dedication but the wellbeing of our city and community depend on it. Personal commitment to waste reduction and putting community support behind city-wide zero waste initiatives will make it easier for everyone to reduce, reuse, and recycle in the future. That means a healthier Missoula.

Missoulians love our river and many of us work hard to keep it clean. So why not make zero waste our mission and render cleanups obsolete for the sake of our river and our community? Let’s start by reducing, reusing, and recycling— in that order.

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