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A collection of environmental organizations and community volunteers found nearly 13,000 pieces of garbage in and around the Mississippi River in St. Paul as part of a brief pilot study held earlier this year.

Three-quarters of the 12,997 items logged in St. Paul were plastic, according to findings published this fall, with food wrappers, foam fragments, plastic bags and plastic bottles among the most prevalent items. The effort was part of the University of Georgia's Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative, and called on participants to use an app to log the garbage they discovered in the river basin from April 1-.25.

St. Paul, St. Louis and Baton Rouge all served as pilot cities in the collaborative effort, which organizers described as the "first-ever snapshot of the state of plastic pollution along the Mississippi River."

It was this community approach that Angie Tillges, Great River Passage fellow, said she found most compelling.

“In my eyes, the community science allows for something incredibly transparent and collaborative to happen," said Tillges, who helped manage the local effort.

Findings were logged in an app known as Debris Tracker. That makes the data fully open to everyone, including the city and its workers, organizations and agencies involved in water health, or anyone with even a passing interest in water pollution.

“To me that’s really exciting because it’s kind of an all-hands-on deck opportunity to know more about the health and wellbeing of our water," she said, in turn allowing them to come up with targeted solutions.

The overarching goal of the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative 2021 Science Report was to piece together a river basin pollution census, of sorts, to understand what type of litter, and how much, could make its way into the river.

Organizers enlisted volunteers in the three pilot cities to track and log trash found in the basin. Volunteers then put their findings on the Debris Tracker app, either in real-time or after the fact.

mrppi - us - materials breakdown

The data was collected from March-April of 2021, with participants in the three cities documenting 75,184 items in the river basin.  Plastic was the predominant pollution type, and this waste was often found discarded on green spaces along the Mississippi River.

In St. Paul in particular, plastic accounted for three-quarters, exactly, of all logged trash, followed by metals and paper at 7% apiece. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was named an "emerging contaminant," and accounted for 1% of items found.

mrppi - st paul - item count

Brands whose litter was seen in St. Paul included  Modelo, Aquafina, Mountain Dew, Airheads, Reese's, Heinz, McDonald's, Taco Bell and Home Depot.

The results weren't surprising for Chris Kucek, a water resources technician with the Capitol Region Watershed District (CRWD). Kucek said he's regularly out in the field and sees the pollution problem firsthand. The report simply underlines something that's clear: Plastic is the biggest problem, not just in St. Paul but across all three pilot cities.

The findings reflect the same thing you often see walking around the city, he said. Things like food wrappers, plastic bags and bottles. Even though the logged trash may not be surprising, that doesn't make the plastic pollution initiative less valuable, Kucek explained.

"One of the reasons why trash in particular meshes so well with a community science approach … is just that it’s so diffuse and widespread over the whole landscape," he said. "There’s just little bits of it everywhere that get into the stream path.”

CRWD was one of the project partners in St. Paul, and had individuals participating in the city parks spring clean-up events log their waste in Debris Tracker as part of the initiative.

The Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative used the data to identify key intervention or education opportunities to help reduce the amount of trash that ends up in the Mississippi River basin, including stormwater outfalls that move waste from urban areas into natural waters; materials that can and should be recycled becoming litter anyway; and the ubiquity of "on-the-go" items (e.g. food wrappers and cigarette butts) recorded in the app.

Litter found along the river in Baton Rouge.

Litter found along the river in Baton Rouge.

Kucek said the data collection is prong one in a two-pronged effort, the first step toward bolstering or developing plans of action such as more clean-ups or better infrastructure.

"It also just comes down to behavior change," he said.  "People are dropping trash, or its pouring out of trash receptacles. It's getting on to the landscape kind of from everywhere. So in addition to data collection, these programs are sort of trying to create more awareness and broader education about the issues."

Tillges described the debris findings as a baseline, saying "the data collected tells us that there’s more data to collect," over longer periods and in different locations. She also noted participants in some volunteer initiatives were using Debris Tracker into the fall.

But what's next?

The 2022 spring clean-up presents a "major opportunity" to integrate the pollution logging and learn more.

"So we’d really like to use this as a launching point for gathering more information," Tillges said. "But then, the hope is it would lead to some action, potentially policy related, to our plastic use in St. Paul.”

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