Pandemic Pollution: More Trash

Pandemic Pollution: More Trash

Some pieces of trash are larger than others.

Some pieces of trash are larger than others. Photo by Glenda Booth

Plastic bottles, bags, stirrers, straws, six-pack rings, yoghurt cups, lighters and dental flossers; aluminum cans; cigarette butts; Styrofoam pieces; bottle caps; carryout food packaging; balloons; fishing line; bait cans. People find these along the Potomac River shoreline regularly.

And now, added to that is a torrent of pandemic trash: masks, rubber gloves, wipes and more takeout food debris.

Wipes in the sewer system skyrocketed by 17 tons in March and April this year compared to the same months in 2019, Lynn Riggins of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission told the Associated Press, possibly associated with the shortage of toilet paper. Do not flush wipes no matter if the packaging says they are flushable. When wipes flushed down the toilet coagulate into big blobs, they can cause blockages and manhole overflows, sending the trash and sewage into waterways.

Thirty orders of takeout food left behind almost 100 gallons of packaging, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema reported on Sept. 16. The more than 36 billion disposable utensils that Americans use each year could circle the globe 139 times if laid end to end, he wrote.

Since 2006, the Friends of Little Hunting Creek have collected 3,820 bags of trash and recyclables, 273 tires and 180 shopping carts in their annual cleanup.

The Friends of Dyke Marsh typically fill around 30 bags at a cleanup.

Why is this troublesome? Here are a few ways trash impacts our natural resources.


Many discarded beverage containers end up in the waterways. Small animals are lured to food morsels inside and get trapped. Some, like lizards, crawl inside for protection and suffocate or starve. Plastic use worldwide has jumped 20-fold in the past 50 years and will double in the next 20, reports Clean Fairfax.

Most insidious is that plastics break down into smaller fragments. These microplastics enter the food web and can be ingested by zooplankton, aquatic organisms, fish, birds and other wildlife. Ingested debris can make an animal’s stomach seem full. Toxics in plastics can cause death and reproductive failure.

Waterfowl, birds, fish, turtles and other animals can get ensnared in plastic six-pack rings. Mount Vernonite Steve Chaconas, head of National Bass Guide Service, has rescued ospreys entangled in six-pack rings.

Plastic bags get snagged in trees and vegetation and float on water. They can suffocate or choke animals, block digestion and cause death. Turtles, dolphins and whales may mistake plastic bags or balloons for jelly fish. Plastic can smother bottom-dwelling species in aquatic environments and add chemicals to water. In Fairfax County, only two percent of 965,000,000 plastic bags used are recycled, reports Clean Fairfax Council.


Styrofoam or polystyrene, used for coolers, cups, trays and carryout “clamshells” breaks apart into small pieces, some invisible to humans. Birds and other animals mistake the pieces for food. Ingested polystyrene can be fatal.

Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts top the list of 20 trash items found during Clean Virginia Waterway cleanups. Most cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that degrades slowly. Plastic from cigarette butts has been found in fish, birds and marine animals.

What can you do?

"We hope residents will volunteer to participate in cleanups, but even better would be if people stop buying bottled water and take other steps to reduce their use of plastics,” says Betsy Martin, President of the Friends of Little Hunting Creek. ”We'd like to prevent trash and recyclables from getting into our waterways in the first place.”

Elected officials at all levels can act too. For state legislation, visit

To Help

September 26 Cleanups:

Friends of Dyke Marsh, and

Friends of Accotink Creek,

International Coastal Cleanup, dates vary; visit

National Public Lands Day, the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort,