The unfortunate irony of Earth Day cleanups

CC BY 2.0 nicholasrobb1989

Though paved with the best intentions, annual litter cleanups add 12 million plastic trash bags to landfills every year; this nonprofit suggests a solution.

The non-profit Wounded Nature – Working Veterans has been working for years on cleaning up "wildlife critical" coastal areas. (The organization employs veterans reentering the civilian workforce, hence the name.) Rather than a big to-do with lots of hoopla for Earth Day, they skip an annual litter cleanup on April 22 in favor of cleanups year-round.

And they have a favor to ask: If you're going to do a big cleanup for Earth Day, can you please not use plastic bags?

Every year, the group says, more than 12 million Americans participate in an annual litter cleanup campaign ... which results in 12 million plastic trash bags being added to the landfill debris. This is heartbreaking; volunteers are armed with the best intentions, but the last thing we need is more plastic bags heading to the landfill.

"If you have participated in a cleanup, you know the routine – upon signing in most organizations will give you a t-shirt, plastic trash bag and a pair of gloves."

The nonprofit Keep America Beautiful provides more than 4 million plastic trash bags alone to their cleanup volunteers each year. Meanwhile, most ocean and environmental nonprofit hosts their own annual cleanups; while these are ostensibly great for cleaning up trash (and also conveniently great for public relations), it's undeniable that they add a lot of plastic bags to the problem.

So what to do. Is it just a necessary evil that must be endured in the name of clearing litter?

Wounded Nature has tackled the problem by using, wait for it, burlap bags! They've been using them for a while and have taken them to some of the most harsh environments imaginable says Wounded Nature CEO Rudy Socha. The bags are used by volunteers to collect litter and then they are dumped into a dumpster. When the event is done, the bags are either collected by the group and used again for the next cleanup, or the volunteers can take them home and put them to use there.

“As a non-profit, several factors come into play regarding bag choice and the biggest issue is cost. Secondary is durability – do we need a contractor grade bag or can we get away with cheap bags for cigarette butts and beverage cans?" asks Socha. "The most a large plastic contractor trash bag will cost is .40 per bag while a very large burlap bag like the ones Wounded Nature uses cost $3.00 each in bulk. The difference for Wounded Nature is we do not provide all of our volunteers with branded T-shirts or gloves. We throw all of our costs into making the planet a better place for the next generation.”

The burlap bags start breaking down within three months after being exposed to water; meanwhile, some contractor bags can endure for more than a century in the environment.

While it's frustrating to think of more harm, by way of more plastic in the environment, being done inadvertently in the name of a good cause, it's at least heartening to see groups like Wounded Nature being decisive and thinking things through. "For us, there is no need to further study the problem, we are focused on remedial action and getting tons of trash and debris removed from our coastal areas," says Socha. "We do make a real difference. Our work results in increased fish and shellfish populations and reduces debris deaths for dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and endangered coastal wildlife."

The road to a cleaner planet, paved in good intentions and burlap bags? Sounds like the way to go.

The unfortunate irony of Earth Day cleanups
Though paved with the best intentions, annual litter cleanups add 12 million plastic trash bags to landfills every year; this nonprofit suggests a solution.

Related Content on