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Teens learn about conservation in the Anacostia Watershed 1/2

July 19, 2019 | Matthew Capuano-Rizzo

AWS Trash Trap leads to policy solutions in the D.C. Area

This morning, Ashley Cheung and I, members of the Smithsonian and Global Co-Lab’s Eco Teen Action Network, gathered with Smithsonian Conservations Commons Program Manager Brian Coyle to learn about the Anacostia Watershed Society’s river clean up efforts. Water quality specialist Masaya Maeda led us to a roped off area on the riverside. On the other side of the rope, we witnessed the consequences of our consumption. Deer Park, Gatorade, and Smart Water bottles mixed with Cheeto and Dorito wrappers to form a quilt of plastic pollution. Bits and pieces of take-out containers and styrofoam plates crumbled under our feet as we approached the shore for a closer look.

Masaya Maeda, who holds a degree in Chemistry from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan and is the longest serving employee of AWS, explained the details of how the trash trap functions. During high tide, the boon rises with the current and goes out into the wetland collecting trash, whereas during low-tide, the boon lowers and retreats closer to the sea-wall. We then approached a massive sewer drain, known as the “outfall.” We learned that the District of Columbia has two separate systems, for wastewater from the streets and that of businesses and municipalities. Originally, the two systems would combine during periods of high flooding and deposit sewage directly into the Anacostia River, but the DC government’s recent installation of the Anacostia River Tunnel has prevented this issue as well as serving as an expanded, though unintentional, trash trap.

While collecting, sorting, and removing trash from a watershed may appear as a tedious task, the data collected from these traps has contributed to the passage of landmark environmental legislation in the D.C. area. Maeda described how volunteers sort trash recovered in the Society’s various traps into 13 categories such as plastic bottles and styrofoam. After documenting the volume of plastic bags found in trash traps, Maeda facilitated the passage of the 2010 D.C. Bag Bill, levying a 5 cent tax on plastic bags. Revenue from this tax has been invested in the expansion of trash traps as well as education initiatives, such as boat tours, about the effects of plastic consumption. Similarly, trash trap data on expanded polystyrene, commonly known as styrofoam, led to a local Styrofoam ban that has expanded to states such as Maryland and Maine. Furthermore, volunteers in Anacostia Watershed Society’s river cleanup at the beginning of the year found more than 4,000 straws, leading to a plastic straw ban in the District of Columbia.

These results demonstrate the connection between science and policy solutions as well as the capacity for citizens, including students of all ages, to become involved in community conservation efforts. Volunteers have already documented a decline in the prevalence of plastic bags and styrofoam in the Anacostia River, underscoring the importance of community involvement in facilitating sustainable development. Working with professionals at the Smithsonian and the Anacostia Watershed Society, we hope to expand trash trap efforts to local schools, so that students become invested in the environment. I always thought of science and policy in isolation, but today’s experience led me to recognize the integral nature of both in combating plastic pollution as well as our climate crisis. Ironically, crunching through hundreds of bottles gave me hope. Hope that continued collaboration between scientists and policymakers will lead to more solutions to our world’s most difficult challenges. As underscored in the United Nations recent reports on biodiversity and climate change, we have no time to waste. We must change.

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Tags: Earth Optimism, Eco-Teen Action Network, Global Goals, Intergenerational, Sustainable Development Goals, Teens, Youth