Plastic to the Sea

Many years ago our children were fascinated by a book entitled “Paddle-to-the-Sea” by Holling Clancy Holling. It told the story of an Indian boy who carved a little canoe with a figure inside and named it Paddle-to-the-Sea. In the story the canoe takes a journey in text and pictures from the Canadian wilderness north of Lake Superior through swamps, streams and the Great Lakes, finally arriving at the Atlantic Ocean. My grandchildren enjoy the book now.

Here in Columbia, Missouri, we have a different version of the story. It’s called “Plastic-to-the-Sea.” In this saga our plastic trash starts its journey when it gets washed off city streets, sidewalks, yards and highways for its own voyage to the ocean.

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Plastic trash on a logjam in Columbia’s Hinkson Creek

There’s a good place in Columbia to measure the extent of this runoff: a logjam on Hinkson Creek, just downstream from bridge number 12 near mile marker 4.75 on the MKT trail. The tangle of branches and logs has clogged up the creek for some time and has acted as a strainer or filter for all the trash swept downstream.

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An aerial photo showing a massive logjam on Hinkson Creek just downstream from the MKT Trail. The debris has become a collecting point for trash washed off the streets of Columbia. (Photo by Kristopher Corbett.)

Hinkson Creek originates south of Hallsville in Boone County and meanders southwest through industrial, commercial, and residential sections of Columbia. Both U.S. Highway 63 and Interstate 70 cross it. Along the way, Hinkson Creek is joined by Flat Branch Creek, which basically drains the downtown regions and the University of Missouri.

Eventually, the Hinkson flows into Perche Creek, which drains into the Missouri River. So plastic from Columbia has a way of reaching the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Recently, I managed to get a closer look at the extent of the plastic trash bottleneck with the help of an aerial survey conducted by Kristopher Corbett, an aerial photographer and videographer.

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Kristopher Corbett, an aerial photographer, controls his camera-equipped drone from a bridge on the MKT Trail. Former MU Professor Bill Allen (left) took part in the project.

Taking part in the project was Bill Allen, assistant University of Missouri professor emeritus of science and agricultural journalism. Corbett’s camera-equipped drone provided still images and video from a bird’s perspective of the trash-clogged logjam. Here’s a link to an interesting aerial video from Corbett’s drone.

Trapped among the logs and branches were Styrofoam coolers, a soccer ball, a football, a basketball, plastic cups from fast food restaurants, a car tire; all forms of plastic containers for soft drinks, water, juices, energy drinks and alcohol; a Christmas tree ornament, one gallon plastic milk jugs, Styrofoam egg cartons and plastic bags.IMG_7932

This logjam may have been here for years. Online, I found a post made to the River Miles Forum from Oct. 10, 2014, describing a “massive” logjam in the same vicinity, blocking the entire channel of Hinkson Creek between Twin Lakes and Scott Boulevard. “I think it’s going to be there for years,” the author of the post said.

People have been concerned about the pollution of Hinkson Creek for two decades. In 1998 two plaintiffs sued the Environmental Protection Agency to require the completion of a total maximum daily load study of the waterway. This study would produce a calculation showing the maximum amount of a pollutant allowed to enter the creek while continuing to meet water quality standards. Ken Midkiff, the former director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Water Campaign, was one of the plaintiffs. While a judge ordered the study, he gave the EPA 10 years to comply. Finally, in 2011, the study was released, and it called for a 39.6 percent reduction in stormwater runoff.

“The EPA can only recommend but can’t enforce,” Midkiff said recently. “The City of Columbia and Boone County can dither as long as they want.” The problem, he added, was that while permits for new developments can require actions to prevent runoffs, there’s nothing to cover housing, buildings and streets constructed decades ago. In the meantime, he said some portions of the Hinkson may be more polluted than before the lawsuit was filed.

As I looked at all the plastic trash at the logjam, I couldn’t help worrying that some day it might end up in the belly of a dead whale on a beach somewhere. According to scientists, the growth in plastic pollution is threatening the survival of the planet. It poisons and injures marine life and disrupts human hormones. The Earth Day Network has a campaign to end plastic pollution.

Another thought that crossed my mind about the plastic trash had to do with the Missouri Legislature, which has gone out of its way to block local control over solid waste policy. If the City of Columbia wanted to do something about plastic pollution, it would have to reckon with the Missouri General Assembly, which has moved to take away the rights of communities to make their own decisions over plastic disposal.

During the 2018 session, the House considered a bill that would prevent municipal governments from restricting, taxing, prohibiting or regulating the use of any plastic bag, cup, container, bottle or foamed plastic packaging device. As a volunteer for the Sierra Club, I testified against this bill when it came before a House committee. The bill advanced but did not reach final passage. It may come up again in the 2019 session. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Dan Shaul, a Republican from Imperial. Shaul has been the state director of the Missouri Grocers Association since 2006.

In 2015, Shaul sponsored a bill that prevented cities from regulating the use of plastic bags such as those used in grocery stores. At the time, a proposed ordinance had been discussed in Columbia regulating the use of plastic bags. The Republican-controlled Legislature approved the bill blocking cities from dealing with plastic bags. As a Sierra Club volunteer, I had testified against this bill as well. The Legislature enacted that law over a governor’s veto. Columbia did not enact a ban.

As long as big money elects those who make our laws, big business will make sure that the use of plastic containers is protected. For that to change, everyone is going to have to take a personal responsibility for plastic pollution. Citizens are going to have to organize to demand action from governments and corporations.

But until that happens, there’ll be more “Plastic-to-the-Sea.”

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