Despite environmental regulations that protect the quality of streams, lakes, and wetlands, solid waste in the form of trash, litter, and garbage often ends up in these surface waters. Because surface waters collect in low-lying areas, anything that is dropped or blown into a watershed can eventually reach a drainageway. In urban areas, trash and litter (general terms for dry solid waste) often are transported by stormwater runoff. In both urban and rural areas, these items sometimes are illegally dumped directly into a waterbody or wetland, or deposited along riverbanks or lakeshores. Trash also comes from people who fish or participate in other forms of water-related recreation. Regardless of source or type, trash is a form of water pollution .
Ironically, in some circumstances, some discarded items (e.g., tires, plastic containers, and nonorganic construction debris) provide habitat for aquatic organisms. However, trash items are unsightly and are a sign of human neglect or disregard for aesthetic values and natural ecosystems . Despite increased environmental awareness, some people still use waterways as a repository for unwanted items, including couches and mattresses; cars and car parts; bicycles; shopping carts; bags of stolen property; fuel containers; and paint cans.
The most common litter in U.S. streams is household trash, including plastic cups, plastic bags and wrapping materials, fast-food wrappers, plastic bottles, and other plastic containers. Plastics can be especially hazardous to wildlife. Depending on their form they can either be ingested, causing internal organ failure, or they can cause a slow strangulation. *
Organic waste (e.g., wood wastes) can have chemical and biological impacts on rivers and streams. Among the many impacts are interfering with the establishment of aquatic plants, affecting the reproductive behavior of fish and other animals, and depleting the water of dissolved oxygen as the wastes decompose. Further, toxic materials can leak or leach out of certain kinds of trash (e.g., pressure-treated lumber, used oil filters, and lead-acid batteries).
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with protecting the quality of surface waters, including streams, lakes, and coastal waters. The Clean Water Act as amended in 1977 provides the legal basis for the protection of the quality of surface water. The law uses a variety of tools to limit and control direct pollutant discharges into waterways, as well as the disposal of dredge or fill materials. The law also addresses pollutants coming from nonpoint sources (e.g., sediment-laden runoff from a farm field).
The control of solid waste falls under a different division within the EPA. The Office of Solid Waste regulates all solid waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which regulates the treatment and disposal of municipal solid waste and hazardous waste. Households create municipal solid waste, which consists mainly of paper, yard trimmings, glass, and other solid or semisolid materials. Industrial and manufacturing processes create mixtures of municipal solid wastes, hazardous waste, and other wastes such as construction-demolition debris. Some solid wastes, such as animal waste, radioactive materials, or medical waste, are managed by other government agencies and laws.
Although RCRA deals with waste once it reaches a regulated facility (such as a landfill), it does not directly address the problem of litter, even when the litter is in a watershed. Similarly, the Clean Water Act does not apply unless the materials are polluting a waterway; that is, it does not apply to trash or debris along a riverbank. Only when trash enters designated waterways and becomes "floatable debris," for example, does it become subject to regulations under the Clean Water Act, the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, or other applicable laws.
The intended use of a waterbody is considered when deriving a working definition of "pollution," including human-derived litter. For example, if water is primarily designated to support wildlife habitat, oxygen is desirable but toxic compounds are not. But if water is to be converted to steam in a power plant, excess oxygen (that could corrode equipment) would be undesirable, and certain toxic chemicals may not be a concern within this very specific application.
Even with regulations that define pollution, sometimes no government or agency is willing to accept responsibility for litter and other debris in waterways. For example, the Rideau Canal and water in Ontario, Canada is a popular destination for boaters and other recreationists. A section of the canal in Ottawa forms the world's longest maintained skating rink. However, as the weather warms and the ice melts, low water levels reveal a variety of debris littering the bottom and floating on the water surface.
The National Capital Commission operates the rink and is responsible for keeping it clean during the winter. Once the ice melts, their responsibility ends. During the navigation season, Parks Canada takes over and raises the water level. Other government agencies that share responsibility for the canal say the water quality is good from an ecological perspective: that is, it meets criteria for waters that support ecosystems (e.g., sufficient oxygen and water clarity).
If no government agency has the responsibility or resources to clean up the banks of a stream or its littered streambed, then it is the responsibility of nongovernmental organizations and private citizens to do so. There are many opportunities for private citizens to participate in river and stream cleanups. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sponsors an "Adopt-a-Watershed" program. Many states have "green team" or "stream team" opportunities, such as Vermont's Green-Up Day and Northern California's Riverwatch.
Volunteers who participate in stream cleanups often report a rewarding experience. In addition to providing an aesthetic and environmental benefit, cleanups reconnect citizens and the community to the waterways that have been a vital part of the nation's history and culture.
Research has shown than people are more likely to behave in ways that preserve our waterways if they are clean in the first place. If a stream bank or shoreline already has litter, people are more likely to continue littering. Individuals can take the initiative by cleaning up streamside trash and by disposing of trash properly.
Most developed countries have environmental agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and special interest groups that support and participate in environmental protection activities. Environmental regulations have greatly reduced pollution of streams by sewage and by garbage or rubbish (i.e., wet wastes such as food byproducts). However, such efforts often are lacking in developing nations.
In some developing countries, for example, navigable waterways are not only transportation and trade corridors, but also the site of floating villages. Canals often are lined with boats and floating shanties, and the canals are the repository of untreated sewage, rubbish, and trash. Elsewhere, impoverished villages in tributary watersheds dispose their wastes onto the ground or into small creeks, which eventually drain to larger waterbodies.
Despite the seemingly dismal outlook for waterways, international aid and governmental efforts are giving hope for local rehabilitation in some areas. For example, the Pasig River in the Philippines received industrial wastes, municipal solid wastes, and garbage. By the early 1990s, the river was considered biologically inactive and had dangerously high counts of fecal coliform . The river was a dark, murky color, and large rafts of floating garbage covered the surface of many river segments. Sunken boats and abandoned barges made navigation difficult and hazardous. Factories and makeshift shacks lined long stretches of the riverbank, as well as tributaries and estuaries . With help from assistance grants from the government of Denmark and the Asian Development Bank, the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission was established in 1999 by an executive order from Philippines president Joseph Estrada. The government's goal is to upgrade the river's quality so it can sustain aquatic life and can be used for recreation by 2008.
(with Cindy Clendenon )
Chiras, Daniel D. Environmental Science: A Systems Approach to Sustainable Development, 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1998.
De Villiers, Marq. Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Harms, Valerie. The National Audubon Society Almanac of the Environment. New York: Putnam Publishing, 1994.
Miller, G. Tyler, Jr. Living in the Environment, 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1990.
Nadakavukaren, Anne. Our Global Environment: A Health Perspective, 5th ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2000.
Newton, David. Taking a Stand Against Environmental Pollution. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 1990.
EPA Adopt Your Watershed. <http://www.epa.gov/adopt/resources/watersheds.html> .
Northern California River Watch. <http://www.northerncaliforniariverwatch.org/> .
* See "Pollution of the Ocean by Plastic and Trash" for a photograph of a bird en- shrouded by a piece of plastic.