Every spring, Jim Heins hikes the entire C&O Canal, starting in Cumberland and ending in Georgetown.
“It takes about 14 days to hike. The bluebells come out, the red bells come out … how can you not love something like that?” he said. “I’ve hiked the entire park, I’ve probably ridden it 20 times, I know it very well and I’ve done a lot of thinking about it in terms of history. It’s a beautiful place.”
But every spring, Heins, of the C&O Canal Association, helps coordinate volunteers who pick up trash along the Potomac River during the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup.
In 2011, 11,388 volunteers removed 228 tons of trash, including 20.66 tons of tires and 14,606 bags of trash and recyclables from 613 sites along the Potomac River watershed. More than 15 tons of recyclable materials were actually recycled after last year’s cleanup.
“Through citizen engagement you can impact behavior change,” said Alena Rosen, of the Alice Ferguson Foundation.
Eighty percent of the region’s drinking water comes from the watershed, she said. “Litter is a serious issue. It harms wildlife, decreases property values, it is a safety issue and a big cost for our local governments,” she said.
This year’s watershed cleanup coincides the foundation’s second annual Litter Enforcement Month, awareness campaigns to alert residents to the causes and solutions to the pervasive problems of trash.
“Litter laws do exist, but people don’t know it and don’t know that they can be caught,” Rosen said.
Heins sees the trash and knows it is there, but many times the volunteers that get involved witness how small acts of litter in the community accumulate when it is washed into the river watershed.
“It’s important to get people out there. Many of the volunteers look around and say, ‘Good heavens, why is there so much trash?’ At least they are getting to see first hand,” Heins said.
This year, the foundation hopes to see 15,000 volunteers, with the help of 425 partner organizations.
Last year, 26,624 plastic bags and 198,700 bottles were removed from the river area.
“We haven’t won that battle yet,” Heins said.
Since 1989, the cleanup has removed more than three million tons of trash from the watershed.
“The stat that always blows my mind is the number of tonnage we pull out each year,” Rosen said.
Name it, and Heins has probably pulled it out of the river, including Blackberrys, amplifiers, microphones, typewriters, and safes. Last year, 29,437 cigarette butts were removed from the watershed, in addition to dozens of bicycles, one portable basketball court, unemployment papers, 253 diapers and 53 empty cans of Vienna Sausage, one car engine and one message in a bottle.
Help. Get involved. See www.potomaccleanup.org.
“Each year it seems like there is a little improvement in the amount of trash we’ve found. There seems to be a little less,” Heins said.