Reducing plastic use can strengthen health of Mississippi River and other waterways

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Living Lands and Waters team member Mike Coyne-Logan recently spoke at the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, in Marquette. During the presentation, he showed off some of the materials, including this message in a bottle, that were discovered during one of the organization’s community river cleanups. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Two decades ago, after years of watching trash clutter the Mississippi River near his hometown of Hampton, Ill, a young Chad Pregracke felt he needed to do something. So, he set out in a single boat, plucking trash from the river banks and shoreline. Soon, with the help of sponsorships, media attention and volunteers, Pregracke’s venture grew.

Today, his non-profit organization Living Lands and Waters has worked on 25 different rivers throughout the country, staging community-based cleanups. With the help of staff, volunteers and a fleet containing five barges, two tow boats, six work boats, two skid steers, an excavator, five work trucks, a crane and a large box truck, 9.8 million pounds of trash have been pulled from the nation’s waterways.

Pregracke wasn’t the first to launch a river cleanup, noted team member Mike Coyne-Logan, who visited the area earlier this month, speaking at the MFL MarMac McGregor Center and the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre. Coyne-Logan’s presentations were sponsored by the Friends of the Marquette Driftless Area.

“But he wanted to do it every day, relentlessly,” Coyne-Logan said. “To make a difference, he wanted people to work with him, to volunteer.”

The trash collected includes everything from tires and appliances to bowling balls and prosthetic legs.

“A message in a bottle is one of the coolest things you can find,” Coyne-Logan remarked.

By far, though, the most prolific material is plastic.

“Every piece of plastic ever made still exists,” said Coyne-Logan.

By 2050, it’s estimated there will be more weight in plastic in the ocean than fish, he added.

The U.S. is one of the biggest contributors. Although the country holds just 5 percent of the world population, it accounts for 30 percent of the world’s waste.

“We need to reduce waste, especially of one-time-use plastics,” said Coyne-Logan.

That includes plastic water bottles, drinking straws and bags. Even the latest trend: Keurig cups or similar single serve coffee pods.

“There’s enough of them thrown out to circle the globe 10.5 times,” he commented.

Styrofoam is another problem, said Coyne-Logan, because “it never goes away.” 

Together, he said, these materials don’t just clog river banks and shorelines, they leach toxins and break down to wreak havoc on the ecosystem. Millions of sea birds, fish and other wildlife unwittingly consume these pieces and particles. Humans later consume the animals.

According to Coyne-Logan, trash often starts on land, then washes into tributary streams and rivers due to things like garbage can mismanagement, illegal dumping, floods and storm drains. 

All of that impacts the water itself. 

“The Mississippi is a huge watershed,” Coyne-Logan explained. “The Mississippi alone provides 18 million people with their daily drinking water. A lot of times, we take for granted that we live near a really awesome resource.”

Lately, Coyne-Logan said Living Lands and Waters hasn’t focused much on the northern portion of the Mississippi River, as it’s not as polluted as other parts of the river.

The Mississippi, in general, has shown improvement, he said. 

“It’s getting better, but it’s a continuing battle,” he added.

In the last few years, the organization has prioritized the Ohio River, which has been deemed the country’s most toxic river.

Living Lands and Waters encourages people to reduce and recycle, to be proactive and conscious of the things they do that could affect the environment.

“Sometimes, problems can seem so big that they paralyze you,” shared Coyne-Logan. “But there’s hope. Small actions can make a difference. It adds up.”

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