The Great Global Cleanup

World Cleanup Day: A Glimpse to the Past as We Head Into the Future

This year celebrates the fifth annual World Cleanup Day on September 17. The goal of World Cleanup Day is to reach across partisan, cultural, and religious barriers in efforts to rid the planet of waste, specifically from indispensable ecosystems such as beaches, forests, parks, and rivers. World Cleanup Day has succeeded in uniting 191 countries around the globe, marking it one of the largest civic movements to date. 

As we approach September 17, however, it’s natural to be uncertain about the future of pollution levels and the influence on our environment. Fortunately , several global case studies suggest how to successfully prevent pollution from endangering our ecosystems, and offer examples of ways we can deepen our global impact on World Cleanup Day. 

The Great Lakes

One of the earliest examples of civic engagement following the establishment of Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency was in regards to the Great Lakes. Public demand to cleanup local waste contaminating the interconnected body of water increased as citizens learned more about pollution sources in the area: soil and chemical runoff, waste and plastics from local cities, and atmospheric pollutants like acid rain that may have exchanged with the lakewater. 

The environmental status of the Great Lakes has positively increased over the last few decades, as the Lakes have been under the protection of various government jurisdictions (the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement signed by the United States and Canada, nine other federal agencies, nearly 40 tribal nations, and 140 federal programs) that encourage environmental restoration and management.

Since activism for the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes began in the 1970s, there has been immense progress in the reduction of chemicals and pollutants, as well as the restoration of various species and aquatic life. There are, however, still some significant dangers to the Great Lakes ecosystem, due to the intensification of climate change and the continuous threat of plastic pollution. 

The Anacostia River

The District of Columbia has been making strides to clean up its waterways, including the Anacostia River, which flows from the suburbs of Maryland to the Potomac of Washington, long before the ban on polystyrene and single-use straws in 2019. Many D.C. residents have grown accustomed to carrying a reusable bag with them for groceries since the “bag law” passed in 2009. 

As a result, the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act has significantly reduced the amount of plastic bags in the river- a 72% reduction to be exact. Compliance with these regulations shot up 83%, and the amount of polystyrene found in the Anacostia decreased over 50%. 

Although significant strides have been made to reduce plastic and polystyrene pollution in the Anacostia River – as well as other local waterways in the D.C. area – the river once again received a failing grade on its report card this past year. The Anacostia Watershed Society reported that the river showed good trends; however, record-setting rains continue to bring excess pollutants to the river, and, even with the various D.C. bans, they are still witnessing superfluous amounts of plastic in the water. 

The Ganges

Flowing through India and reaching over 1,500 miles, the Ganges is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the world. The river, considered a site of religious devotion by many who worship there, has been the victim of years of chemical waste dumping. 

In 2019, Earth Day Network-India led a cleanup event in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The citizen-led cleanup of the Ganges resulted in the collection of over 10,000 kilograms of plastic waste from the water, and additionally raised awareness for the need to end plastic pollution. 

While the cleanup was certainly effective in both raising awareness and the removal of significant amounts of plastic from the Ganges, sources speculate that it will take a lot more to cease the pollution of the waterway for good. While progress has been madethe presence of microplastics, among many other pollutants, remains an issue

How Can You Help?

This World Cleanup Day, we must continue to encourage our local and federal representatives to enact change on a legislative level, while committing to educate each other on the dangers of pollution. We implore you to support the Global Plastics Treaty by adding your name to the End Plastics Petition. Also, check out EARTHDAY.ORG’s Great Global Cleanup for more information on how you can deepen your impact this World Cleanup Day, and even find details on how to register for a cleanup near you.