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Volunteers pose with 28 bags of trash recovered from the River Terrace Park trash trap,
Left to right: Ashley Cheung (Eco-Teen Action Network), Steve Kinzer (AWS Maintenance Engineer), Matthew Capuano-Rizzo (Eco-Teen Action Network), Zander (AWS Intern), James Foster (AWS President and CEO)

Volunteers wade through waste in river cleanup 2/2

July 23, 2019 | Matthew Capuano-Rizzo

Eco Teen Action Network collecting solid waste from trash trap in the Anacostia River

As Ashley Cheung and I walked across River Terrace Park towards the riverside, the crinkle of a Doritos bag interrupted our walk. Despite this small reminder of our reason for coming today, the park appeared pristine, void of hundreds of bottles and wrappers that pervaded our destination.

Since I am leaving for college in the fall, I am cleaning out my room as well as many other spaces in my house in which my belongings abound. As I sort through school work, cards, art projects, books, and many other things which I have accumulated over my eighteen years of existence, I feel a strong desire to throw much of it ‘away.’ But then I consider, where is ‘away’? While depositing that which no longer serves me into a silver receptacle may bring me freedom, closure, and peace, that action may also spell damage, torment, and decline for a planet I say I serve. Although my donating items to Savers’ Reuse and Recycle Program will not save the world, the nonprofit's mission of encouraging reuse of clothing and textiles as well as recycling that which they cannot sell may serve as a model in the fight against the bottle’s that slide under Ashley’s and my feet as we duck under the trees beside the trash trap.

Having already collected several black yard bags worth of oil-coated trash, Masaya Maeda, Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) welcomes us and instructs us to separate oil-coated trash to aid volunteers in sorting this weekend. AWS President James Foster, intern Zander, and Maintenance Engineer Steve Kinzer arrives later with a truck to carry the trash to the AWS headquarters in Bladensburg. Condoms and alcohol bottles hide under Gatorades and Fritos bags, perhaps as their owners intended. I try to imagine the circumstances for the waste’s arrival below my feet. Maybe a water bottle escaped from two hikers bags on the trail. Maybe a city trash can overflowed onto the street only to be captured by a torrent of run-off during a storm. I used to judge.

I used to yell at my peers during high school football games for throwing candy wrappers and soda cans under the bleachers or into the street during the games. Such behavior, I realized, only serves to alienate those who might otherwise be open to joining the cause. Now, I simply pick up litter when I am walking. Bottles on the way home from the bus stop or french fry containers en route to frisbee. Alternatives serve as better motivators than reprimands. Instead of fuming as my classmates passed out Red Solo cups and plastic utensils at class parties, I bring in bamboo utensils and reusable plates. I expected to be castigated as the annoying vegetarian, but surprisingly, my classmates have supported me and even offered to help me wash the plates and utensils after the conclusion of events such as French Honor Society Karaoke.

Long after we collected all of the bottles and other large waste in the clear and black bags, my fellow volunteers and I remained. As James Foster removed the final large waste items from the trap and Steve brought the bags to the truck, Zander, Ashley, Masaya, and I examined the soil for remnants of our plastic enemy. Cigarette butts, masquerading as twigs, next to styrofoam balls, disguised as rocks, underscored the pervasive nature of plastic pollution. I remembered a talk my mother and I attended by National Geographic photographer Thomas Peschak in which researchers revealed the insides of sea birds, bursting with straws and bottle caps.

While the Anacostia River received an F in the Anacostia Watershed Society’s annual report, this score represents the second highest grade ever of the river and remains encouraging given heavy rainfall in 2018. Although such cleanups serve to alleviate the effects of the river’s urban environment, the use of trash data to advocate for policies aimed at source reduction, the most preferred method of pollution prevention, advances the long-run solution of a circular economy with programs such as Terracycle’s Loop Program. Despite the dire circumstances of our planet’s livelihood, such programs give me hope. We may never know if our efforts were enough. But we must try.

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