Washington: Mayors along the Mississippi River gathered virtually this week for the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative (MRCTI) annual meeting. The conference brought together over 40 mayors from ten states as well as global stakeholders nationwide for a critical meeting report on the level of plastic pollution in the Mississippi River Corridor.
Three pilot cities along the Mississippi participated as test sites for a new civic science approach to collecting data on the presence of plastic waste in the catchment area. St. Paul, MN; St. Louis, MO; and Baton Rouge, LA, all got involved by organizing volunteers in their cities to collect this critical data using the Marine Debris Tracker app developed by the University of Georgia.
In April 2021, Citizen Scientists helped survey over 111 square kilometers along the Mississippi Corridor. These volunteers collected data on over 75,184 garbage items and cataloged over 660 pounds of plastic while performing trash cleanup.
About 75% of the items cataloged were made of plastic; The top items include cigarette butts (filters are made of plastic), plastic food packaging and plastic beverage bottles – followed by foam plastic fragments, aluminum cans, hard plastic fragments and plastic bags.
“Community members have researched areas with more than 20,000 soccer fields to collect this valuable data with Debris Tracker,” said Jenna Jambeck, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of Georgia and National Geographic Explorer. “The results show that in every pilot city there are opportunities for intervention to reduce the amount of plastic that enters our environment and the Mississippi.”
Marine litter continually spilling into the Mississippi is a major threat to the quality of the environment and the health of the ecosystem. As a drainage system for 40% of the continental United States, plastic and other debris get around through gutters and minor waterways in the Mississippi and its tributaries eventually to get into the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean. Approximately 11 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year, with rivers contributing a significant portion of that amount.
“This data is intended to help raise awareness of the levels of plastic waste in certain areas,” explains Barbara Hendrie, Director of the United Nations Environment Program’s North America Office. “We hope that all stakeholders – from policymakers to businesses to citizens – can use them together to take action to deal with the plastic pollution crisis.”
In addition to helping cities and towns along the Mississippi River, this research is also intended to provide an example of what can be done together to tackle plastic pollution around the world and find solutions.
“We have learned a lot from this new approach about where waste accumulates, how much there is and what type of it,” said Sharon Weston Broome, Baton Rouge, LA Mayor and MRCTI co-chair. “We now have valuable information to not only support existing rainwater programs, but also to improve our waste management systems and infrastructure for the future.”
“In my city, 74 percent of the material we found was plastic waste that was cut down by our residents on a huge stretch of shore. With the St. Louis area being a major confluence of the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, it is important for us to understand where plastic waste comes from, where it is concentrated, and what makes up the bulk of the waste stream from which manufacturers, ”noted Tishaura O. Jones, Mayor of St. Louis, MO.
This new data provides critical insights for communities along the Mississippi, ”said Melvin Carter, Mayor of Saint Paul, MN and MRCTI Minnesota Chair. “I look forward to using this information in our ongoing work to further support a clean, sustainable and resilient Saint Paul.
Under the leadership of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), the Mayor of the Mississippi River in partnership with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), National Geographic Society and the University of Georgia conducted this pilot study as part of the Mississippi Plastic Pollution Initiative. You can find the full report here.