Environmental science is taught in schools, solar power doesn’t feel like science fiction, and most residents of Montgomery County wouldn’t dream of tossing their hamburger wrapper out the car window or dropping their coffee cup on the sidewalk.
But trash is still ending up in the Potomac River — a lot of trash. No one’s sure exactly how much, but volunteers hauled up 162 tons of it in a single day during the Potomac Watershed Cleanup last year. The cleanup, which has removed more than 1000 tons since 1989, takes place this year on April 2 at several sites in Potomac, among hundreds throughout the Potomac River watershed.
“A lot of it is from trash blowing out of trash cans,” said Gina Mathias, a spokesperson for the Alice Ferguson Foundation, the environmental education group that coordinates the cleanup. Some of the trash comes from “things you might not even think of being trash, like leaving your basketball on the basketball court overnight and it rains and it gets washed away,” she said.
“We’re trying to get the message out that the watershed is all connected,” Mathias said. In other words, just because you can’t see the river, doesn’t mean the trash doesn’t end up there. Anything that isn’t disposed of properly and securely is likely to be carried into storm drains that lead to local streams that lead to the river, and eventually to the Chesapeake Bay.
That’s true whether you’re standing in Potomac, or in Gettysburg, Pa. or Waynesboro, Va., all three part of the 14,670 square mile Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes all of Maryland as well as parts of Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. And past cleanups show that it’s not just candy wrappers carried off by the wind that are ending up in the river – volunteers routinely find tires, 55-gallon plastic drums, appliances and other large items.
The river cleanup draws together dozens of environmental and private organizations that oversee individual sites under the umbrella of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which coordinates and keeps track of the results.
Volunteers meet to collect trash for three hours, 9 a.m. until noon. Most of the sites are along the edge of the river or the tributaries and streams that feed into it, but any location in the watershed — a park or stream valley, for example—can be a cleanup site. The event takes place rain or shine.
Last year 3500 volunteers took part. “It’s just a huge impact those three hours have,” Mathias said.
In the Potomac area, the main sponsor of sites is the Potomac Conservancy, which will oversee cleanups at Great Falls Tavern, C&O Canal Locks 8 and 10 and Seneca Creek.
“It’s a good time … It’s a great chance to meet some other people that share their love for the Potomac and their concern for it,” said Jen Schill, development director at the Conservancy. “It’s a great family activity. We have a lot of families come out for it. The kids love it.”
Schill said that Conservancy leaders and board members would be working at several of the Potomac sites April 2. While all volunteers are welcome, she noted that volunteers who own a canoe or kayak are especially needed. Using a canoe or kayak, volunteers can often reach trash that is impossible to get to on foot and can ferry trash to collection points much more efficiently.
Schill also pointed to the connection between actions seemingly removed from the river and the trash collected during the cleanup. “Everything that we do in our own yards, every thing that we do at the parking lot at work … it’s ultimately going to affect the stream, it’s ultimately going to affect the river,” she said. “I think we all appreciate of this amazing river we have in the midst of a pretty populated area. One of the reasons this cleanup is important is it educates people about how all they trash gets there.”