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Reflection on Community Science and Environmental Justice

On Sunday, April 18th, Office of Sustainability staff along with students from the Energy, Environment and Sustainability Internship Program participated in a clean up initiative at O’Fallon Park, located in North St. Louis City, less than a mile from the Mississippi River. The volunteer project was one of several Environmental Justice Days of Action, organized by earthday365, a local non-profit, in honor of Earth Day.

“Planning the event was great, as I wanted to have an opportunity where interns and staff could come together in a safe, physically-distanced manner,” explains Michelle, who had organized the Office of Sustainability’s participation in this event. “There was a lot of litter in the park and it was great to see all the volunteers not just from WashU but other groups and fellow community members. The park looked much cleaner when we left.”  

Volunteers were split into groups to tackle various areas of the park, some of which were more concentrated in plastic pollution than others.  

“It was kind of meditative,” says Natalie Snyder, one of the communications interns. “Since there were enough of us to clean up major sectors of the park, you could see the teams make a difference.”  

Aamna Anwer, the Sustainability Coordinator, agrees with this sentiment. “The park clean-up was pretty remarkable. I do neighborhood cleanups with my family regularly, but I’ve never been a part of something coordinated like this.”  

Unsurprisingly, most of the litter at the park was food-related packaging.  

“Styrofoam plates, take-out containers, chip bags…” Natalie lists off. “It’s a little depressing to see what was once a good time turned into such disgusting waste.”  

Parks have always been popular among city residents for picnics and in-person gatherings, and as the pandemic persists, this outdoor tradition has only increased. The usage of disposable containers and utensils have also skyrocketed as well since the start of the pandemic, and it’s easy to forget how quickly single-use plastics turn into waste. Even after they are disposed of in public garbage cans, food packaging and other kinds of litter can accidentally overflow and make way from park grounds to the river, and then to the ocean.  

The Mississippi River is the drainage system for 40% of the United States. Plastic waste and other litter travels through storm drains, tributaries, and rivers into the Mississippi River, making its way into the ocean. The Mississippi River Plastic Waste Initiative is working in coordination with the UN Environment Programme, University of Georgia, and the National Geographic Society on an initiative to reduce plastics in the Mississippi River. Through a community science approach, this program invites residents of St. Paul, St. Louis, and Baton Rouge to attend cleanup events and help collect data on river plastics. 

By cataloguing the types and brands of litter along selected cities that represent the upper, middle and lower Mississippi river, the data will indicate areas of focus; such as industrial, consumer, and more. The O’Fallon Park clean up was more than just picking up litter. Items were counted and catalogued through the Marine Debris Tracker, a community science plastic waste tracker.

“The initiative is looking to generate a first-ever snapshot of the state of plastic pollution along the Mississippi River and its tributaries by using their debris tracking app that volunteers download on their phones,” explains Michelle Patterson, the Office of Sustainability’s Internship and Business Coordinator. This data will help create critical baselines for decision-makers in both the private and public sectors and inspire action and effort toward reducing plastic pollution flowing into the river—and therefore, into the ocean. 

The large amounts of litter at O’Fallon Park can be attributed to trash cans overflowing or being blown over, trash being left behind by trash users, or even being blown in from outside the park. Trash gets dispersed by the winds and accumulates in the fields, fences, playgrounds, water features, and wooded lots. Parks in low income communities often have limited budgets for maintenance and operations from a history of systemic disinvestment. As a result, beautiful parks like O’Fallon can end up with an overwhelming amount of litter. 

Plastic pollution has been an issue even before the pandemic. Litter can impact the local park ecosystem even before they harm marine life in the ocean. The plastic-riddled pond at O’Fallon Park is a prime example.  

“It smelled horrible even though our masks,” says Aamna, still shocked. “Dead fish were bobbing amongst the floating plastic. There was just so much. It was overwhelming.”  

“It’s a little scary, too, as the park is home to a large egret colony, and there were some people fishing on the other side of the lake.” Natalie adds on. “There are people and animals who rely on the park being clean enough to live in and potentially eat from. This really illustrated how litter and general trash can severely impact its environment, more than just an aesthetic issue.”  

One must remember that every social movement starts with a catalyst, and every collective action starts with the individual. Every piece of litter that is picked up, catalogued, and put away during this initiative brings us one step closer to creating public policy and modes of advocacy. Fifty-one years has passed since the first Earth Day, and while it is important to push for systemic change every single day, little victories deserve to be celebrated.  

“I’m quite proud of us,” says Aamna, as a concluding thought on her day working with the Mississippi River Plastic Waste Initiative. “It really felt like we accomplished something meaningful. O’Fallon Park is a really beautiful place—it felt good helping to ensure its beauty shines on.”