As people look for a safe way to have some fun during a pandemic, many are turning to outdoor recreation.
But with the many benefits nature can provide, comes a sense of responsibility to keep local parks and waterways clean. One organization is hoping an upcoming event will bring awareness to the environmental impact of trash.
The 12th Annual Cannon River Watershed-Wide CleanUP will be held 9 a.m. to noon Saturday throughout the region. Members of the public are asked to participate in this COVID-19 compliant event hosted by the Cannon River Watershed Partnership.
Volunteer cleaners are required to wear face masks and gloves while maintaining a 6-foot distance between other households as they pick up trash.
The Cannon River watershed in southeast Minnesota includes an expansive 90 lakes and 107 wetlands of 10 acres or more in size, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The clean ups will be happening across five parks including:
• Riverside Lions Park in Northfield
• Two Rivers Park in Faribault
• City Park in Medford
• Morehouse Park in Owatonna
• Riverside Park in Cannon Falls
Picking up trash in local parks not only improves aesthetics, but it also helps the environment and watershed as a whole. Even a piece of litter on the street can easily wash into a storm drain and make its way into the river.
Trash debris can cause physical harm to habitats, spread chemical pollutants, negatively impact wildlife and interfere with recreational and commercial use of waterways. There are several negative ways in which trash can affect habitats. Piled up trash can alter and decrease light levels for aquatic life that live in the lower levels of waterways as well as deplete oxygen levels, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. On top of that, wildlife can also become entangled in litter, making it difficult to move or do other basic tasks.
Trash leaves its footprint at a chemical level too. Plastic trash that has found its way into bodies of water can contribute to the accumulation of chemicals and be transporters for persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (also known as PBTs) contaminants. These contaminants include chemicals that are very difficult to degrade or break down. Plastic waste has the potential to transfer these PBTs to organisms when consumed, thus entering the food chain and increasing in concentration going up the food chain, according to the U.S. EPA.
“The river is a lot more pleasant to be around when we don’t have plastic bottles or paper floating in it,” Kevin Strauss, community engagement coordinator at the Cannon River Watershed Partnership said.
Strauss says areas with trash tend to accumulate even more trash if it doesn’t get picked up. The annual clean up event reminds people that littering is not OK and brings awareness to any littering problems a community might have.
“It’s just a reminder to folks that it is everyone’s responsibility to keep our parks and rivers clean,” Strauss said.
Although the group will focus on pollutants that are easy to clean up such as plastic bottles, food wrappers, plastic bags, cans and paper, other more complex and chemical pollutants contribute to the overall water quality. Most people prefer to live by a river that looks clean and has a healthy ecosystem and provides resources like fish, and a place to swim or boat.
“We can only do that by working together,” Strauss said. “Especially this year when we are facing multiple challenges including a pandemic.”
Participants are encouraged to wear clothes they don’t mind getting dirty and closed-toe shoes. Check the weather before arriving to have a better idea of what to wear. CRWP will provide gloves for everyone, but they will be a one-size-fits-all type, so volunteers can bring their own fitted gloves if desired. Every volunteer will get a CRWP 30th anniversary reusable cloth mask as a way to say thank you for volunteering. Trash picking tools are also welcome.
With common sense practices, required masks and social distancing, the annual event will continue safely as a way to build community.
“We are not able to gather the way we did before, we are not able to socialize so this could be an opportunity to both keep the river clean, the way we’ve been doing it every year, but also to give people a safe socially distanced community activity,” Strauss said.
Unlike years prior, there will not be a community picnic following the clean up due to safety concerns. Group gatherings, which were traditionally held at check in will be no more this year. A group photo at the end of the end has also been canceled. Instead photos will be taken throughout the clean up.
New this year is the option to participate from home with family members/roommates as part of the “Clean up at Home” program. This is a great way for people that don’t want to attend a community event to still participate in the clean up, Strauss says. Those who register to take part in this program will be given a supply kit from CRWP staff to host their own clean up. Materials include a set of gloves, bags and masks which will be placed at participant’s front doors the week of Sept. 13. Participants can, at their convenience, clean up their neighborhood and dispose of the trash in their household garbage.
“We are cautiously excited about the clean up coming up … Sometimes we assume with the pandemic that no one will want to show up, and we’ve been pleased with how many folks have already signed up,” Strauss said. “But there still is plenty of space.”