Devil Thy Name is Expanded Polystyrene Foam

Alternative Titles: Litter Picking Lessons Learned While Walking Buckeye the Dog, Litterati: A Lesson in Material and Brand, Let's Talk Trash

I have had a passion for clean water and have been concerned about litter for as far back as I can remember (I recall a very over the top anti-litter video made with my 5th grade friends in my homegrown watershed along the Hudson River in Michigan). I have always been happy to join a stream cleanup, spend time near a creek, and tidy up the space. Happy to give myself a pat on the back and go home feeling better about the world. I actually struggle staffing stream cleanups because my preference would be to pick up litter rather than man a table.

One of our watershed volunteers, Emily Brown, approached me at a Rocky River stream cleanup a few years ago, back when we would all gather in big groups after an event to celebrate together. Emily had noticed some trash hotspots in the Euclid Creek watershed, and she was very passionate about tracking the data that goes along with litter. We had always counted the total number of bags filled at an event, and the number of tires found for our partners with American Rivers, but Emily encouraged us to use a paper data form and count the numbers and types of trash we were finding.

This started us on a path towards thinking more about where litter is coming from, what it is made of, and how can we start conversations with those able to drive change in our waste stream. As a watershed manager I was concerned taking data would mean less trash picked up, but our stream cleanup volunteers have gotten used to taking an extra 15 minutes at the end of the cleanup to summarize what they found, and now it is just part of our normal cleanup routine.

A little bit before last March I started tracking the personal litter I picked up around the office because I wanted to start a conversation with the neighbors about the litter found, and perhaps figure out what was driving it. I also had a theory that if we routinely picked up the litter, we would eventually find less. I believe that when people are surrounded by a clean space they are more inclined to keep it clean. Our tracking mechanism was basic; we made a spreadsheet in Teams and I convinced a few other staff to report how many bags of trash staff picked up on our daily lunch walks. Maybe we would note the oddest thing we found, but we weren't tracking every piece. The paper forms take time, they aren't 100% accurate, and we all are always looking for ways to create a clone or add more hours to the day to do all the things that need done, so it wasn't a high priority. Then Covid hit and my office neighborhood pick effort was put on hold (but not before our efforts inspired one of the neighboring semi-truck drivers to hop out and help!). Instead I started to post my individual clean up efforts to our Individual Acts of Conservation, but it wasn't a great way of tracking the impact or what I found.

Enter Litterati.

American Rivers introduced us to this mobile application for tracking litter last fall. You take a picture of every piece of litter found and then you "tag" it with the Object, Material, and Brand. I love picking up litter, and I love data, and with this application, it made it easier to track the impact and trash trends. So now I am a bit of a "power user" and mildly obsessed with tracking the trash I pick up.

I have gone so far as purchasing a grabber and a phone mount with Bluetooth so that I can quickly grab and photograph litter while walking my dog Buckeye (on a hands-free leash around my waist). I've made it my mission on our daily walks to pick up and tag at least 15 pieces of litter. Doing this daily on the same routes since November, I have learned a lot about litter in my neighborhood. The majority is from windy trash days, or overstuffed garbage bins. The trucks use a machine arm to load the trash, and those overstuffed bins don't always play nice with the machine. On a particularly windy day Buckeye and I chased down hundreds of pieces of paper from one overfilled recycle bin. But there are other "trash trends" to be observed. The majority of pieces I pick up are cigarette butts. There is a hot spot for smokers at the local soccer field parking lot. I wonder if folks realize those cigarette butts are actually made of plastic known as cellulose acetate. You can tell the areas where teens ditch the "evidence" typically along street corners or areas near stop signs is where I find most alcoholic beverage containers or vape cartridges. I joined a global campaign to track candy wrappers from the Mars company. What did I learn? Candy litterers in my neighborhood prefer Hershey Company and Nestle company candy over Mars.

My neighborhood trash arch nemesis is expanded polystyrene foam. You may call it Styrofoam - but as I have learned during my Litterati adventures, Styrofoam is actually a brand. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam is the material Styrofoam is made of. With the uptick in Amazon orders and the litter data collection over the holidays, I find a lot of packing peanuts and EPS packaging (as well as a lot of those plastic air pouches). Sometimes Buckeye and I go for runs instead of litter walks and guaranteed it will be a night we see more trash than usual. I made the mistake one night of thinking, oh I will just get that EPS piece on my next walk around the block in the morning. Lesson learned. One large piece of EPS quickly becomes hundreds to thousands of small EPS pieces when hit by a car. Never again will I walk by a piece of EPS and not pick it up and throw it away. I have been tediously picking up little tiny EPS pieces on every walk since.

Picking up litter is a great way to help clean up your community and help your downstream neighbors today (humans and wildlife too!). But data collection is a way to work to address the litter problem at the source for our future. Data provides the support to start conversations based in reality about what litter is made of and where it is coming from. It's a tough problem that won't be solved by individuals efforts alone. But together we can make a difference.

April is citizen science month. Collecting litter data is one way to be a citizen scientist. Tracking data helps to see the reality of a situation and not just what we perceive. For instance many people have noticed the uptick in what Litterati users have termed #CoronaLitter. But the reality is that the number of face masks and rubber gloves found is a drop in the bucket compared to cigarette butts, food wrappers, and plastic bottles. You don't have to be a scientist to take pictures of what you see, but you can contribute to a scientist level dataset! Having data helps us to understand where litter comes from and why so we can work to stop it at the source.

In the meantime, I continue to pick up litter, and collect data. Because even though it is not my trash, it is my neighborhood, my Great Lake, and my planet. I feel a personal responsibility to take care of where I live and to help others downstream.

If you would like to join me in my litter data collection efforts reach out and let's talk trash (data)!

Blog Author:

Elizabeth Hiser, Watershed Program Manager

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