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EDITORIAL: Plastic found in Chicago River fish shows we still have a ways to go

On Chicago River Day, volunteers conduct cleanup of litter along the river in Ping Tom Park in Chinatown on May 11, 2019.
On Chicago River Day, volunteers conduct cleanup of litter along the river in Ping Tom Park in Chinatown on May 11, 2019. | Friends of the Chicago River photo

If you’re a fish in the Chicago River, there’s a nine in 10 chance you’ve got plastic in your system.

How junked-up does a river have to be to do damage like that? How much litter must there be that the great majority of fish have swallowed plastic, which of course does not biodegrade?

No wonder thousands of volunteers picked up tons of trash along the Chicago River this past weekend. Maybe it’s time to bring back that 1960s public education campaign: “Don’t be a litterbug.”

That campaign, created as a public service by the Ad Council, did a pretty good job of drumming into our heads that it’s bad form to toss trash out the car window, in a forest preserve or along a riverbank.

Apparently, it didn’t do a good enough job, though. Or we’re backsliding. A recent examination of 350 fish taken from the Chicago and other regional rivers, as part of a project by the Friends of the Chicago River, found that more than 90% of the fish had bits of plastic in their systems.

That discovery is particularly disheartening given the Chicago River’s promising environmental comeback in recent decades.

The challenge for Chicago and the larger region — one we would hope Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot will take on — is to promote a “zero tolerance” policy toward litter and, for that matter, raw sewage in the Chicago River.

During the recent heavy rains that hit Chicago, millions of gallons of combined sewage and stormwater were discharged into the river, releasing a toxic mess of bacteria, garbage and chemicals.

As the Friends of the Chicago River argued in an op-ed, the best solution to the problem is more green infrastructure — things like permeable pavement, green roofs, rainwater harvesting systems and more trees — that naturally absorb excess stormwater before it overflows and mixes with sewage.

Fish and wildlife have begun returning to a cleaner river. Chicagoans are biking, walking, rowing and otherwise enjoying one of our great natural resources.

A strong commitment to protecting that resource belongs on the new mayor’s agenda.

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