Last weekend was a day of service for my church. There were many great volunteer opportunities for my family, and we decided to spend the morning cleaning up a local park. It’s a small park with a stream running through the center of it. Since the stream is a few feet lower than the rest of the park, that’s where we found the most trash.
The stream contained a mattress and shopping cart, but what really impacted us was the thing we saw most: plastic shopping bags. These were, by far, more numerous than foam drink cups, soda cans or any other kind of trash. We talked about it together as we untangled bags from roots in the stream.
Growing up in the 1970s, litter was everywhere. I always think about the scene from Anchorman when they’re walking and throwing garbage everywhere. (I know I’m shocking our Millennial readers, but that’s exactly what it was like.) And much of that pollution (along with industrial waste) ended up in rivers and lakes. Some rivers and lakes were so polluted you couldn’t swim in them. In fact, the Cuyahoga River, which runs through Cleveland and feeds into Lake Erie, was so polluted it had no living fish – and it caught on fire, sparking the Clean Water Act.
While we have made a lot of progress in reducing water pollution since then, there are still warnings about mercury levels in fish in many areas. In addition, everything eventually flows into the sea. And much of the world’s litter goes this route as well, ending up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The supply of clean drinking water is becoming a bigger concern for Americans, like it was back in the ’70s. Continuing drought conditions in California, Texas and other areas of the U.S. have increased attention to our water supply, as we’ve tracked in both our Eco Pulse and Energy Pulse studies over the last two years. But this issue is much bigger than trash or U.S. regional drought patterns.
Many scientists agree that limited water resources is one of the most crucial challenges of the 21st century, as the population is expected to increase by 3 billion over the next 50–75 years. According to the National Academy of Sciences, more than 1 billion people in the world currently don’t have access to safe, affordable drinking water. There’s uncertainty whether there will be enough water to even support the Earth’s existing population long-term.
I take pride that my family is pretty good at recycling, but we came away from our experience with a new sense of vigilance about plastic bags and a commitment to find a place to recycle them. As I’ve researched for this post, I’ve also become even more concerned about the amount of water my household wastes. One small change I’ve already made is to use soaker hoses instead of sprinklers – and use them sparingly. Most communities allow for greater use of soaker hoses because they don’t waste nearly as much water as a sprinkler.
To find more things I can do, I’ve gone to the EPA’s WaterSense website. My to-do list for Saturday just got longer.