Sixty members of Canyon High School’s Eco-Chicos Environmental Club teamed up with the Santa Clarita chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby last month to remove the equivalent of 89 large garbage bags full of plastic and other trash from the Santa Clara River bed.
The groups cleaned the area between the bike path and riverbed along Soledad Canyon Road from Commuter Way to Bouquet Canyon Road.
The Eco-Chicos’ advisor, Dennis Yong, advanced placement biology and environmental science teacher at Canyon High School, had taught the young people that plastic pollution damages both the environment in general and each of us individually. Beyond being an unsightly litter problem, plastics have serious consequences for climate change and can affect our health as well.
Plastic is made from petroleum (a fossil fuel), and millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions are released when these resources are extracted, in the manufacturing process, and again when they’re incinerated. These emissions fuel climate change. Plastic that doesn’t get burned can find its way into the rivers, wash into the ocean, and can either strangle marine life that gets entangled in it, or be mistaken for food when broken into microplastics.
Microplastics are everywhere. They’ve been found in the deepest oceans and the highest mountain peaks — and even in the placentas of unborn human fetuses. Researchers from the State University of New York and the University of Minnesota, who analyzed drinking water samples from five continents over a 10-month period in 2017, found microplastics in 83% of the samples. A study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in June 2019 estimates that the average person eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year and breathes in a similar quantity.
Although little research has been done on the health effects of ingesting or inhaling microplastics, we do know from animal studies that they can pass through cell walls, accumulate in organs, and impact the immune system. We also know they can attract and bind to compounds known to harm human health, such as cadmium, lead, PCBs, and pesticides — beyond the toxic compounds used to make them. And further, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic sourcing, manufacturing, and burning cause respiratory and other health problems in vulnerable people — especially those living in frontline communities near where these activities take place.
Unfortunately, very little plastic is recycled. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that the U.S. recycled about 8.7% of its plastic refuse in 2018. However, a new report from the nonprofit The Last Beach Cleanup and the advocacy group Beyond Plastics finds that the U.S.’s plastic recycling rate is now significantly lower— only 5 or 6% in 2021.
Given that fact, we’re fortunate to live in California, which is a leader in tackling the plastics problem. In September 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation for a $270 million investment to modernize recycling systems and promote a more circular economy as part of the California Comeback Plan’s $15 billion climate package. A total of nine bills were signed into law, addressing plastic waste exports, beverage container recycling, plant-based food packaging, single-use foodware accessories and standard condiments, environmental advertising, and organic waste collection.
Until those bills fully take effect, though, it’s up to us to resist using single-use plastics, recycle what we can, and help keep the environment clear of plastic trash. In Santa Clarita, plastics tend to collect in the brush along riverbanks, especially where the river is near roadways. If not picked up, sunlight breaks the plastics down into microplastics, which then blow around in the wind and will wash out into the Pacific Ocean when we eventually do have a big rainstorm. The Santa Clara River cleanup goal was to grab as much plastic as possible before it gets broken down into microplastics.
The Eco-Chicos and our local Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter made a good-sized dent in Santa Clara River plastic waste last month, and further cleanups will be planned later in the year.
Anyone interested in helping with future cleanups can contact [email protected]. These groups also participate in Santa Clarita’s annual River Rally, which provides another opportunity to corral that plastic.
Cher Gilmore lives in Newhall and is a member of the Santa Clarita chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.