Styrofoam and the Creek Week Clean-Up

On an overcast fall morning a crowd of around 50 Colorado College students, community members, and middle school students stood shivering slightly around a picnic table behind the Van Briggle Pottery building on the west side of Monument Creek. There were a few boxes of donuts, a pile of Greenway fund stickers and Creek Week buffs, and a very large dumpster.

Photo by Daniel Sarché

We donned white examination gloves and grabbed trash bags, signed waivers that prevent us from suing the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District for “allergies, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, [and] sunburn,” among a multitude of other calamities, and headed over the bridge to the east side of the creek. The water level was low, and remnants of plastic bags flapped halfheartedly from tree branches and the tops of bushes, a residue from bygone floods. There was a slight wind, and the vague sewage stench of the creek mixed with the scent of oncoming rain. Heat stroke and sunburn seemed unlikely.

Part of the CC Week of Action, this three-hour creek clean-up, organized by the student organization EnAct with the help of the Collaborative for Community Engagement and the Office of Sustainability, was part of the larger “Creek Week” run through the Fountain Creek Watershed District. Communities from Palmer Lake to Pueblo joined in over the course of the week, cleaning a stretch of Fountain and Monument Creeks totaling over 60 miles in length.

“Cleaning up the creek is more impactful than many people think,” said EnAct member Jordan Schrage ’20. “It matters to all of the waterways from Colorado to the ocean. Every little bit we can remove makes a difference on a global scale.”

Objects from power strips to full bed frames have been found along the creek in past years, and on this clean-up, items varied from decaying pillows and single sneakers to a pair of Crocs and a still-working hot pink Sharpie. There was even a dead muskrat washed up on a mud bar.

What was found in the largest quantities, however, were small bits of plastic bags and pieces of Styrofoam containers. Both have incredible persistence in the environment; styrofoam is predicted to take over 500,000 to a million years to decompose, and in the meantime, due to its light and buoyant nature, it’s able to blow out of trash cans and landfills and float down waterways until it gets to the ocean, where it forms a major component of floating marine debris such as the Pacific Garbage Patch. As though that wasn’t bad enough, it also contains a petroleum derivative called styrene, which has been declared a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Every time we use a Styrofoam takeout container, a small amount of styrene leaches into our food, and after we throw the container out, it can continue to poison wildlife — sometimes blocking their digestive systems to the extent that they starve to death — for hundreds or possibly millions of years.

Along Monument Creek, countless beads of Styrofoam and parts of 7-Eleven cups washed up amidst sticks and plastic bags and other muddy debris. The bigger pieces were easier to snag, but it would take days to pick up every bit of Styrofoam on just a few miles of the creekbed. We only stayed out for a few hours, and straggled back at the end, lugging overflowing trash bags and plastic containers. There was still trash along the creek, plastic bags wagging from hard-to-reach branches and rotting tires on the shore. Still, it felt good to have made some difference, however small.

“I think people genuinely care about the creek,” said Schrage. “I think people are concerned and want to take every opportunity they’re given to help make some kind of environmental impact.”

While the event wasn’t as large as in other years — in 2016, more than 350 people participated in CC’s creek clean-up, picking up a total of 3,140 pounds of trash — it was still an impressive turnout for a gray Saturday morning.

“It went well, and there was a positive reaction to the work being done,” said Schrage. “So I definitely envision and anticipate hosting more creek clean-ups through EnAct!”

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