A plastic water bottle falls upon the river valley trail. Its owner was aiming for the recycling bin, but missed, initiating this bottle’s journey to new lands. A wind gust pushes the cylinder down the steep valley. It rolls uncontrollably, smashing into trees on its journey through the forest. Tall grasses trap the bottle on a ledge overlooking the North Saskatchewan River. Rain starts to pour down, dislodging the bottle from its new home and it falls into the river with a splash. Slowly, very slowly, it breaks down over the next 450 years. As pieces break from the bottle, inquisitive fish taste the small shards of plastic, while other fragments settle in with the sand along the banks of the river as the bottle’s remains journey over 1,000 kilometers towards Lake Winnipeg, and eventually the Hudson Bay.
This story is made up, yet water pollution is a very real threat. The banks of the North Saskatchewan River are beautiful places to be enjoyed. However, they are also home to plenty of garbage that threatens the quality of the North Saskatchewan River. Plastic pollution is a particularly large threat to the diverse aquatic species living in the river. Microplastics have been found in almost every waterbody, have been consumed by almost all aquatic species, and have been found in tap water in Europe, Japan, and Russia. These plastic pieces 5mm or smaller come from microfibers in clothing, plastic pellets for manufacturing, microbeads that used to be in toothpaste and body wash, and break from larger pieces of plastic. Plastic harbours harmful microbes as well as chemical pollutants including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyls (PBDEs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can be harmful to the aquatic species consuming them, as well as humans ingesting impacted water and fish.
Less than 9% of all plastic that’s ever been made has been recycled. Therefore, the remaining 91% are housed in landfills, are incinerated, are found in bodies of water, or are located in other environments. Instead of dwelling on the plastic that’s not recycled, let’s shift our focus towards recycling. Edmonton has a massive waste processing facility called the Edmonton Waste Management Centre (EWMC) which offer free tours of their recycling and garbage processes. To learn about how recycling works and what happens to waste that’s being diverted from the river, Riverkeeper joined a tour of the centre.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Who knew recycling could be so complex? Recyclables collected at the EWMC are sorted at the Materials Recovery Facility into the different categories including paper, cardboard, glass, metal, and plastic type. It was eye opening to learn that the recycling industry is driven by its own market and economy. When there are people willing to buy the items being recycled they will get recycled. But there are challenges in finding demand for some types of hard-to-recycle (or expensive-to-recycle) materials. When there is no demand for a recyclable, they often end up in landfills or sent to other facilities at the EWMC.
The 3 Rs that we are taught in elementary school are increasingly important as the quantity of waste continues to grow. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s no mystery that the order matters. Reducing consumption is the most important R. Rethinking every time we make a purchase might make us reconsider what we need in our lives. Reducing comes next but is also super important. For example, using a reusable water bottle saves water since plastic water bottles take over double the water to make. But finally we can recycle and properly dispose of our waste to make sure that our amazing river can be trash-free!
Join Riverkeeper this Spring and Summer for river valley cleanups to make sure that the garbage making its way towards the river is diverted and properly disposed of. Sign up for our newsletter above to stay informed of upcoming cleanups. The next time you are visiting the river valley, bring a garbage bag to keep our source of water (and life) clean. If you find pollution that you can’t clean up, report it on the Swim Guide and participate in an exciting and important citizen science initiative.