A Day in the Life of a Garbage Scientist

As I stood, gazing intently down near my feet, I felt the water flow past my knees. Even with my waders on, I could feel its cool relief in the summer sun. As I looked into the water, I caught a glimpse of a dark, circular shape under the muddy stream bed. I reached down to grab it, and as I pulled, I realized that it was not going to budge. What I thought was a lone bike tire was actually still attached to an entire bike, buried under the muck. I called my teammate, undergraduate researcher Sam Fredrickson, over and we traced the pattern of the metal crossbars and found a place to grip. With our combined effort, we pulled the frame free from under the layers of mud that had accumulated over it.

Why was I so intent on pulling this rusted, broken, and bent bike out of a river bottom? Well, to start off, you should know that this bike is one of the thousands of pieces of data I collected this summer. You see, I’m a graduate student studying trash in streams at Loyola University with Dr. Tim Hoellein. That’s right – I’m a garbage scientist!

Technically we call it ‘Anthropogenic Litter’ or AL. It’s basically any human-made material that has been disposed of. What I care about is AL that has escaped our solid waste infrastructure. I want to know how much trash is in Illinois streams, what kind of trash it is, and why it’s there. With the answers to these questions, I hope to not only get a better understanding of how AL interacts with river ecosystems, but also to inform data-driven solutions to remove it and even keep it out of rivers in the first place.

Chicago river trash
An example of the diversity of objects I find in my collections. In this image alone, you’ll see glass fragments, wax candles, shoe soles, golf balls, aluminum cans, plastic bottles and wrappers, a VHS tape, a metal shovel head, a wooden block with rusted nails, and bones from a ham. All of these came from within the same thirty-meter (100 ft) stretch of a river.

At this time, I’m still finishing the last of my collections for my thesis. When I’m done, I’ll have collected AL from over 4,000 ft of stream from places across northern Illinois. This winter, I’ll analyze the data and look for patterns between the AL I found and aspects of the sites from which it was collected. These aspects include how close sites are to trails and parking lots, what physical features are present in the site, and other metrics of stream health measured by state agencies.What makes my trash-collecting a form of research? We are collecting trash in very specific ways. The methods we use come from California, where our partners at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project have been developing ways to best measure AL. This might sound like a simple task, but think about the kinds of things that get thrown away: plastic wrappers and bags, bottles, cans, paper, cardboard, broken headphones, appliances, clothing, appliances, cigarette butts, tampons, and so many other things! This diversity of material, size, and source makes measuring and collecting AL difficult. We still need a common language to classify it and count it.

One aspect of my research is helping to develop that language. We mark out a 30 m (~100 ft) reach of the river and within that reach we look for trash in three different ways. First, we do what we call a ‘Qualitative Assessment’. It’s a score from 1-12 with 1 meaning virtually no trash and 12 meaning the entire area is covered in trash. Next, we do a ‘Visual Tally’ where we walk the same area and count up every piece of trash seen, without actually picking it up. Finally, we complete our ‘Manual Collection’, this time placing all AL we find in buckets. We take these buckets back to the lab, where they’re carefully rinsed, dried, counted, and weighed.

My team standing in a forested stream, each carefully looking for AL to place in their buckets as part of the “Manual Collection” method.

By collecting the same trash data in three ways, we can compare the results of the first two ‘rapid’ methods to what is actually present in the stream. While we predict that the first two methods will most certainly underestimate how much AL is present, if we know how accurately they detect the AL in the stream, we can account for underestimations mathematically. Rapid methods are much less time and labor intensive and can be easily added to the routines of assessment groups that are already taking other water quality measurements, like the Illinois EPA. 

So where are we finding all this trash?

My sites are all over northern Illinois and we’ve found AL at every single one. In addition to AL, we see lots of fish, insects, turtles, mussels, and clams in the streams.  Some sites are in agricultural streams surrounded by corn, some are in quiet forest preserves, some are in urban areas with concrete banks. For my sites in the Chicago River, I chose them based on the locations of stream features I believed would either be sources of AL or places where AL would build up: bridges, combined sewer outfalls, and debris dams. We predict that bridges will have a higher proportion of heavy items, since it’s a place where people might dump AL that would be difficult to bring down close to the water. Combined sewer outfalls are directly connected to our sewage system, so we expect to find more AL that people flush down their toilets like feminine hygiene products (yes, we have found many of them; yes it is very gross). Debris dams are complicated assortments of logs, branches, and other pieces of natural material. Because of their complexity, we expect to find more plastic because it can easily become entangled as its carried downstream.

Chicago river trash
My team doing the “Qualitative Assessment” in one of our bridge sites in the Chicago River.

For my sites in other streams, I used locations where the Illinois EPA does their biological assessments to estimate stream health. These assessments are completed by examining the fish and insect communities in the river. The different types of organisms found reveal whether the water quality is good, or if there are water quality problems. This will allow me to learn about differences in AL between both low- and high-quality streams as well as compare streams surrounded by agriculture to those in urban areas. We’re still finishing collections have haven’t yet crunched the numbers, but anecdotally we tend to see much more trash in urban areas with a much higher proportion of plastic, while in agricultural areas we see less trash, but a much higher proportion of heavy items like cinder blocks, bricks, and machinery parts.

Doing this work every day brings surprises: discovering most of a toilet in a quiet forest stream, realizing what looked like a pile of leaves is actually a tangle of plastic bags, or rinsing a crayfish out of a bowling shoe. These surprises along with picking up so much trash have led me to ask some big questions about what I consume and the waste I produce.

I’ve found that after I pick up 500 pieces of plastic grocery bags in a single month, I’m much more reluctant to use one at the store. 

What at first looks like bark on a large stick is actually a plastic bag that was wrapped around it.

Chicago river trash
Most of a toilet, found in the sediment of a rural stream.

If you want to gain a new perspective, clean up some AL, and contribute to scientific research, here are a few organizations that my lab has partnered with that you might be interested in. We are working with both Urban Rivers and the Shedd Aquarium on trash monitoring along what they call the Wild Mile along Goose Island in Chicago. We’ve also worked with the Alliance for the Great Lakes Adopt-a-Beach Program. For the last 16 years, they have been using volunteer power to clean beaches all over the Great Lakes. Each of these clean ups has also been accompanied by tallies of the trash collected, meaning that they have 16 years’ worth of AL data.

Trash is a part of our ecosystems; there’s no doubt about that. But, scientists and citizen scientists can work together to understand what is out there and what its impacts are. Click on the hyperlinks above to become a part of one of the projects. Everyone is welcome to participate, and each person adds unique value to the process. While it might seem daunting, I believe we can reduce AL in our ecosystems. By joining us in the collection of data, you too can help better inform changes in behavior, policy, and management. I can’t guarantee you’ll find a bike, but I can promise you will make a difference.

Lauren Wisbrock is a 2nd year master’s student at Loyola University Chicago, studying freshwater ecology with Dr. Tim Hoellein. Specifically, her research is focused on trash in wadable streams of Illinois. Check out her graduate school and research journey on Instagram (@ecologywiz) and twitter (@wisbrock).

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