The Chicago River. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Get plastic and other trash out of the Chicago River

The Chicago River system is cleaner and healthier than it has been in generations. There are more fish, and recreational use is booming, but there is an inordinate amount of garbage in the water, which is dangerous to wildlife and repellent to the people who live in and visit Chicago. A huge percentage of that garbage pollution is plastic, which, according to Tim Hoellein, associate professor at Loyola University, “comes from a vast array of sources and interacts with the ecosystem in ways that people would be shocked to see.”

In their studies of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, Hoellein and his students have found plastic pollution inside large fish and tiny invertebrates. Plastic appears to permeate the system.


Last Wednesday Friends of the Chicago River held the Chicago River Summit, a semiannual event that brings together policy makers, advocates and interested citizens to discuss river-related issues that need to be resolved. Titled “Ending the Waste Stream: Pathways to a Garbage Free Chicago River,” this year’s theme was aquatic garbage pollution.

One of the most creative programs presented was Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel, which is managed by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. The googley-eyed trash interceptor sucks up garbage that flows into the harbor from underground streams. Since 2014, the beloved Mr. Trash Wheel, complete with a Twitter handle and Facebook page, has collected over 1.5 million tons of trash, including 9.3 million cigarette butts, 638,000 plastic bottles, and 522,000 plastic bags.

Another standout example of on-the-water litter removal came from the Anacostia Riverkeeper, a group that is working to improve and restore the Anacostia River. Their 8½-mile river boasts two full-time trash interceptors, and the group has secured a garbage-based water quality standard, known as a Total Daily Maximum Load that must be met by Washington, D.C., and Maryland, which border the river. If they exceed their garbage pollution load, they risk large fines for noncompliance. To further assist with restoration and protection, the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act of 2009 requires stores that sell food to charge 5¢ for each plastic or paper bag sold, which goes into a special Anacostia fund.

Anyone who walks along the Chicago Riverwalk or kayaks the river knows that we still have an issue with garbage in the river, where rafts of debris detract from the magic of our riverfront communities and cause harm to local wildlife. Banning the use of, or taxing, single-use plastics will help. Participating in neighborhood cleanups like Chicago River Day also will help.

Your voice needs to be heard. Before you open the next plastic water bottle, put it back in the fridge, grab a glass instead, and tell your elected officials you care. If we all work together, we can clean up our river and bring an end to the waste stream.

Sally Fletcher is a director with Fletcher Group LLC and president of the board of directors of the Friends of the Chicago River.

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