Earlier this summer, ProFESS Northeast Philly Watershed Stewards explored Pennypack on the Delaware and came across some washed up trash on the edge of the river. Places like this are exactly where our litter ends up - our waterways. The students took the opportunity to talk through the water cycle and speculate how all of the garbage ended up there. The Delaware is a tidal river and when the tide is high, the water washes garbage up to the river banks, which would have been swept up off our streets and into the water by runoff after a rainstorm. The waste lingers along the banks or even up in the tree branches until the tide rises again to carry the trash back out into the river and new garbage piles up in its place. It is the reason that a clean up crew could pick up this litter and within a day or two this space could look just like it does in the photo above with no evidence that anyone came by to collect the waste.
As they discussed the ways that the water moves trash in and out of this bank, the students talked through the series of events that brought it to where we were standing and the path it would take once the river swept it back up again. One litter we saw was a balloon. Here is one possible explanation of where this balloon came from and where it will go:
As a child excitedly walks down the stairs, his mother hands him a balloon and tells him “Happy Birthday.” He thanks her, takes it into his hand, and steps out into the backyard where friends and family have gathered to celebrate. As he begins opening his presents, he becomes distracted by the gifts and loses his grip on the string. The balloon floats away high into the sky.
The wind carries it out their driveway and down the road, where it settles in a park. It stays here until the next rainfall, when this section of the park begins to flood and the water runs off into the Poquessing Creek, carrying the balloon with it. In the creek, the balloon tumbles through the water, getting caught on rocks along its journey but the current continues to carry it forward. The string wraps around a branch in the water and as the balloon continues to float past, the string snaps, pushing the balloon farther down the creek and eventually emptying into the Delaware River. It flows down the bends of the river and, now, while the tide is high, the balloon washes into this small nook where erosion has formed an alcove along the bank. It becomes caught up in the other trash which floated here as well and as the tide falls again, the balloon and other litter settles here in the sand. It bakes in the sun and begins to lose its color. Its “Happy Birthday” message is very faint now.
That night, the tide will rise again and the balloon will begin to float on top of the water as it did before. As it’s making its way farther down the Delaware, the plastic breaks down into small pieces which it leaves behind in the water. These microplastics will linger in this river, where the majority of Philadelphians source their drinking water. The balloon continues on around the bend where it catches the eye of an Eastern painted turtle. The turtle mistakes the shiny balloon and the way it wiggles through the water for a fish it can snack on. It eats the balloon and the plastic gets caught in the turtle’s throat and so it eventually dies.
It's our collective responsibility to keep our rivers clean in order to keep our communities and ecosystems healthy. Keeping litter off our streets, keeps it out of our waterways. It’s important to the quality of our drinking water to reduce the amount of plastic entering our rivers. Clean water also supports our ecosystems, including natives plants and animals, like the Eastern painted turtle. Please remember not to litter to support healthy communities and ecosystems.