Quiet Waters Lecture Series Talks Trash
Environmental lecture series reviewed success of bag laws and what is being done elsewhere to clean up area rivers.
There’s now an answer to the question, “Where Does the Trash Go?”
The question was the core of Thursday night’s environmental lecture at Quiet Waters Park.
Based on the photos shown by Brian Schilpp, it appears that it all feeds into
Back River up near Baltimore. Though obviously not true, the photos showed an astonishing array of plastics, tires, bottles and other trash littering the river’s
Schilpp was one of three panelists who addressed the audience at the sixth lecture
in Quiet Waters environmental series. The presenters each spent about 20 minutes
dealing with their specific areas of expertise before taking questions from the
Mary Lynn Wilhere of Washington’s District Department of the Environment kicked
off with a discussion of the recent “Bag Law,” in D.C. Enacted on Jan. 1, 2010, the
law was the first of its kind in the nation.
Operating under the slogan, “Skip the Bag, Save the River,” the bag law mandates
all district businesses selling food or alcohol to charge 5 cents per bag. Although
grocery, liquor, and mini-marts are obvious participants, more than 8,000 businesses in the district fall under the law’s authority, including large retailers, such as Target, drugstores, street vendors, and restaurants.
Under the law, the cashier must ask customers whether they want to purchase a
bag for a nickel; the business cannot just absorb the cost of the bags. For each bag
purchased, the retailer keeps 1 cent and the remaining 4 cents goes toward cleaning up the Anacostia River.
Wilhere said despite some initial grumbling and confusion, retailers have
said bag usage dropped about 50 percent within a few weeks of the law’s
“In D.C., we had a huge litter problem,” Wilhere said. “You could follow the trail of
litter from a 7-Eleven. We didn’t think that 5 cents would make that big a difference, but the law actually makes people think if they actually want to buy a bag.”
Julie Lawson, the past chairman of the Surfrider Foundation and an environmental
activist, also addressed the trash problem in the D.C. region generally and the Anacostia River specifically.
The Anacostia receives more than 20,000 tons of trash each year, and the district faces substantial fines if the problem isn’t dealt with sufficiently. Lawson also provided background on several organizations that are dealing with
the trash problem in the metro area: The Surfrider Foundation along with two
new alliances, Trash Free Maryland and Trash Free Virginia.
She said Montgomery County has passed a bag law similar to the one in D.C. (though somewhat simpler in concept) that benefits stormwater-management efforts.
The Maryland legislature once again did not pass a statewide bag law this past spring, but Lawson said she is hopeful about a bill passing in next year’s session. She also said the state’s counties are starting to move forward with mandates of
their own rather than simply waiting for the state.
Up last was Schilpp of the Back River Restoration Committee with his
shocking photos of the trashed river. Only 2 years old, the Back River Restoration
Committee has already achieved stunning visual success.
Back River was “an absolute mine field of litter,” Schilpp said. In 2009, the litter
was “sometimes so thick that you couldn’t actually see the river.”
Back River passes through several highly populated communities as it wends its
way to the Chesapeake Bay, many them being lower-income communities with lots of fast-food-related trash, he said.
In the past two years, using heavy equipment and a lot of backbreaking labor, the
committee has pulled out more than 2,000 tires and 365,000 pounds of trash.
Last summer, the committee hired four college students to spend time mucking
through the waters pulling out debris. Five more are on tap for this coming summer, he said.
The quantities of trash floating through, though, are tough to imagine. For instance, Schilpp said last September’s 8.5-inch rain yielded 11,000 plastic bottles as stormwaters raced through the system.
On May 3, local officials signed a “Trash Treaty” to deal with Back River’s
environmental issues. The committee also is signing up schools to help with the
effort so that students can have a “local watershed experience.”
After two years of hard, often disgusting, work, Schilpp flashed a hopeful sign for the river onto the screen: a photo of the first river otter ever sighted in the river, spotted at the end of May.
“I feel like we’re going 1,000 mph,” Schillp said.