By Masaya Maeda

Broken down pieces of ESP (Styrofoam) trapped with River Terrace trash trap
on November 5, 2017; Courtesy of Anacostia Watershed Society

With a decade of data to show for it, the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) is seeing a huge decrease in one of the river’s most significant pollutants: expanded polystyrene foam – also known as EPS or Styrofoam. Thanks to local and statewide legislation and the efforts of volunteers, the average amount of EPS dropped from 22% in the first 2 years of work to 3% in 2020! The highest percentage of the foam was 37% in December 2011, and the lowest has been 1% in November 2019 and June 2020.

This significant reduction in EPS pollution was achieved through policy and an engineering project called Trash Trap. 

Nash Run Trash Trap on March 9, 2015. Photo was taken before the foam bans and many EPS (Styrofoam) pieces are visible; Courtesy of AWS

The Anacostia Watershed Society’s Trash Trap program captures trash and debris in the river and is periodically emptied by AWS staff and volunteers. The volunteers then sort through the piles of both natural debris and human-generated trash to categorize it and record the weights, counts, and volume of what is found. Without the help from volunteers for what is typically a tedious task, we could not continue this effort. The data is reported back to the DC Department of Energy and Environment and used in our annual State of the River Report Card.

Since its inception in 1989, the Anacostia Watershed Society, along with its volunteers, has removed 1,405 tons of trash from the Anacostia River. Through cleanup events like our annual Earth Day Cleanup, volunteers from all over the watershed have spent thousands of hours cleaning up our shorelines and streams. Unfortunately, what we would then witness is those same places becoming filled with trash again after a big rain. It became clear that we had to stop the trash from entering the river in the first place.

In 2009, AWS installed a trash trap in a tributary called Nash Run. Before the installation we hired contractors, Jim and Cynthia Collier, to walk along streams in DC and find the highest number of trash pieces per linear length of a stream in Nash Run. We installed a netting type trap there first, then replaced it with the current screen type trap – a more effective design that can capture more trash, whether it floats on the water or not. However, we realized that the trap is laborious, and it is not feasible to install devices to capture all the pieces of trash throughout the Anacostia watershed. So, we started to accumulate reliable trash data and images. We used this information to educate the general public and advocate for solutions to trash pollution in the Anacostia River.

Chart of trash by volume since 2010; Courtesy of AWS

This approach worked very well, and with our partners we rallied the community to help pass the Bag Fee Law in DC. We saw a ripple effect in which Montgomery County passed a similar law shortly after. An image of the amount of non-recyclable straws in our trash trap helped raise awareness about this pollutant, leading to the plastic straw ban in DC. Most recently, our trash trap work was used to pass the EPS ban in all three jurisdictions that contain the entire Anacostia watershed. And, now we have seen a significant reduction of EPS.

Volunteers from Accenture Federal services helped sort trash on March 7, 2020; Courtesy of AWS

The reduction is largely thanks to the foam ban implemented on Jan. 1, 2016, in DC and Montgomery County. Prince’s George’s County then followed up with a similar ban in July of the same year. The ban now covered the entire Anacostia watershed. 

A proprietary trap called a Bandalong was installed upstream of our trap in March 2016, which contributed to this reduction, too. Bandalongs are floating traps that capture trash as it floats on the water. This type of trap misses non buoyant trash, which is caught by the AWS Trash Trap at Nash Run.

 Fractions of EPS (AKA Styrofoam) deposited on the shore of the Anacostia River near the Watts Branch; Courtesy of AWS

Looking at the graph of Trash Characterization by volume, you can see where the trash is sorted into three categories: styrofoam/EPS, bottles and cans, and other trash like chip bags and miscellaneous plastic. Watch these numbers come to life in the animated gif at the top of AWS blog site:! One thing we find curious in the graph is the spike in foam pollution in November 2014. The foam ban legislation passed in June 2014 in DC, and we wonder if stores and retail establishments worked swiftly to rid themselves of their stock?

The decline in foam pollution is a huge boon for the Anacostia River. Because it breaks down into ever smaller floatable pieces, it becomes harder to remove from the river. Our screen-type trap at Nash Run is unique in that it is designed to catch both floatable and non-floatable trash, but it doesn’t work on the miniscule pieces. 

Thanks to the regional foam bans in watershed counties and the tireless efforts of river advocates who helped put them in place, we can celebrate this huge milestone. With the statewide foam ban in Maryland that took effect back on Oct. 1, 2020, we are hoping that cleaning out foam trash from our traps will be a thing of the past. Next up: Bottles and Cans!

Group photo after trash sorting by staff and a Master Naturalist, Maria Spottswood, on Sep. 9, 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. Notice the small amount of EPS (Styrofoam); Courtesy of AWS

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