Betsy Martin can’t help but point out the spring beauties — tiny clusters of purple-pink native flowers breaking up the greenery around her feet — during a walk toward Little Hunting Creek in Fairfax County, VA. She only wishes she were combing the stream’s shores for treasures like these more often. Instead, what brings her and dozens of volunteers here year after year is trash — the muddy, oil-covered sort that’s no one’s treasure.
As president of Friends of Little Hunting Creek, Martin has been organizing annual spring cleanups along the creek’s trashiest stretches for 16 years. Since the group started keeping track in 2006, participants have filled almost 3,500 thirty-gallon trash bags with the usual suspects — thousands of plastic water bottles, Styrofoam takeout boxes and candy wrappers — and unexpected ones, too.
In 2012, volunteers found 111 shopping carts wedged into the creek’s muddy bottom where it runs under Janna Lee Avenue and both sides of the stream are lined with apartments. It looked as if someone had dumped them from a truck.
A mannequin leg, plastic alligator head and a rifle were unearthed over the years, along with 266 tires and countless recyclable plastic items.
Little Hunting Creek, flowing through a strip mall and phalanx of apartments in Fairfax County before reaching the Potomac River, has become more of a “trash conveyor belt” than a tributary, as one state senator put it. News articles have referred to the creek as the county’s trashiest stream, though it’s hardly the only waterway clogged with such debris in the commonwealth’s most populous county.
That doesn’t make the trash here — in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, with private and public trash bins near every turn of the waterway — any less surprising.
Jen Cole is executive director of Clean Fairfax, a 40-year-old taskforce-turned-nonprofit that’s funded in part by a statewide “litter tax” on manufacturers. With more than 1,000 miles of streams running through the county, she views Little Hunting Creek’s trash-laden arteries as symptoms of a broader problem in the region — one that she thinks few politicians or nonprofits in the state are effectively addressing.
“It’s so hard to be in one of the wealthiest communities in the country and literally be knee-deep in trash in a stream,” Cole said. “This is not some Third World country that doesn’t have [trash and recycling] services. How do we reconcile that?”
Many of the Potomac watershed’s urban tributaries get a scrubbing of trash each April as part of the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup. Over the last 30 years, the cleanups have deployed more than 150,000 volunteers to prevent 7 million pounds of trash from entering the Potomac River.
The foundation has also stepped up its data collection, encouraging participants to count the plastic water bottles, foam containers and even plastic straws they collect as fodder to support waste-reduction legislation across the region.
Several bills to reduce trash at the source have been successful in the Chesapeake Bay region — though not in Virginia.
The District of Columbia, in 2010, began charging consumers a 5-cent fee to tote their items away in plastic bags, encouraging them to bring reusable sacks instead. Maryland’s Montgomery County and Chestertown followed suit with their own bag fees and bans, respectively. Since 2015, the District and Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have each passed versions of a ban on plastic foam boxes.
Virginia legislators, often from Fairfax County, have proposed adding fees for plastic bags without success. Most recently, a measure to add a 5-cent fee for the bags was killed in a Senate committee in 2017.
Virginia Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) plans to propose legislation again in the next session. He said that he hopes a politically altered landscape in Richmond and a governor who has cast himself as pro-environment betters the odds for such bills.
Surovell has developed a personal ire for abandoned shopping carts that wind up in Little Hunting Creek. In 2012, he had to expand the cleanup event he organizes every year to three days — and recruit a friend with a chain winch — to remove the 111 shopping carts found in the creek near Janna Lee Avenue.
“When a shopping cart falls over in a creek, it lays down and slowly digs into the bed, or it creates a dam and redirects the creek,” Surovell said. “To get it back out, we had to pull it out with a chain winch rigged to a bunch of trees. It was a [an awful lot of] work.”
He proposed a bill the next year that would make abandoning property, such as shopping carts and building materials — also commonly found in the creek — illegal.
Advocates have theories about why Little Hunting Creek is so trash-clogged. Trash that is dropped in parking lots or at bus stops along U.S. Route 1 washes into the nearest stormwater drain when it rains. Even when trash does make it to a receptacle, if the bins are overfull or the wind is blowing, garbage can find its way to the nearby creek.
The county released plans this year to redevelop much of the 7.5-mile Route 1 corridor with a focus on facilitating bus transportation. The changes could come with improved stormwater — but, in the meantime, could include more of the construction debris that often is illegally dumped in the water.
On a walk along the creek in early May, a few days before Surovell’s annual cleanup, Martin said the logjam of trash just below the bridge looked “not as bad.” Three shopping carts were half-sunk in the mud, along with a wooden shipping pallet and at least two tires visible above the water’s surface.
A couple of weeks before, Martin said she and volunteers filled almost ten 30-gallon bags in their first 20 minutes at a stream cleanup near a bustling U.S. Route 1 bridge. She said the Virginia Department of Transportation had cleaned the same stretch of the stream a couple of weeks before.
“After a while, you start think we’re enabling this,” Martin said.
She said that she hopes the county will follow through soon on plans to install a floating trash trap in Little Hunting Creek, which has been discussed for a couple of years. Similar traps have helped collect thousands of pounds of debris in the Anacostia River watershed and in Baltimore, though some are maintained by nonprofits. Matthew Kaiser, a spokesman for Fairfax County’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, said the installation is scheduled for the spring of 2019, but the county must first acquire a maintenance easement.
He said installing the first Bandalong Litter Trap, an Australian device that’s been installed in the Anacostia to collect floating trash for removal, will be a pilot project to determine whether the county should consider more.
Martin’s group and others also are looking for ways to prevent the most prolific sources of trash from entering the stream in the first place, particularly plastic bottles.
On the day of Surovell’s cleanup, a small group of self-proclaimed “trash activists” marched to the headquarters of the International Bottled Water Association, conveniently located in nearby Old Town Alexandria, to raise awareness about the industry’s waste. Organized by the Northern Virginia Trash Action Workforce, the marchers wore costumes made from plastic bottles and paraphernalia they’ve removed from local streams to make their point.
The activists would like to see Virginia adopt a container deposit program that provides monetary incentives for people to pick up and return beverage containers, such as water bottles and soda cans, in exchange for 5 or 10 cents apiece. The funds help to pay for additional environmental programs, including trash cleanups, in states such as Oregon and Michigan that began adopting them as early as the 1970s.
Though Cole’s organization uses different methods, such as school-based education programs, her message is similar.
“We can talk about cleanups all day long, but what we really need is litter reduction,” Cole said. “We need to use less stuff, less plastic. That’s really what’s filling these streams, because it floats. We need bottle bills, bag taxes, recycling bins at shopping centers — there’s a lot that can be done to deal with it before it ever gets to a stream.”
For now, Martin is busy doing what she does every year: tallying up the number of trash bags filled and making lists of odd items retrieved at this year’s creek cleanups. She hopes the annual refresh reminds residents why the stream is worth cleaning up in the first place.
“I wish there were a sense of the creek as something beautiful — or potentially beautiful,” said Martin, who can see a portion of the stream from her house in Alexandria. “Of course, the creek is full of poison ivy and trash, but it’s also full of birds and native trees and wildflowers.”