In 1989, a group of volunteers gathered at Piscataway Park to remove refuse that had washed up along 3 miles of Potomac River shoreline.

They did it again the next year, but expanded the effort to four sites. By 1996, they had 2,000 volunteers cleaning up 60 sites along the river, from its headwaters to the Bay, collecting 137.5 tons of trash.

By last year, the cleanup—coordinated by the Alice Ferguson Foundation—consisted of 5,875 volunteers who removed 217.8 tons of trash from 309 sites.

Volunteers come year after year. But so does the trash. Since 1989, more than 35,000 volunteers have removed 2.5 million pounds of debris, including a ’57 Chevy and 36 refrigerators.

“It certainly is not getting better,” said Tracy Bowen, executive director of the foundation, which operates the Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Education Center at Piscataway Park. “Our shoreline is constantly trashed. We don’t feel like the cleanup is the solution.”

In 2003, the group decided it was time to get out of the river cleanup business, and set a goal of a trash-free Potomac by 2013. That was followed with a “trash treaty” signed over the last year by District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams and top elected officials from four counties in southern Maryland and Fairfax County, VA.

At a Potomac Watershed Trash Summit March 16 at the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington, D.C., environmentalists and government leaders added some teeth to the treaty by adopting an action plan which—along with massive help from volunteers—will begin to stop litter from getting into the streams and tributaries flowing through the nearly 15,000-square-mile Potomac River Watershed.

“Together, we recognize that a community that respects itself must take responsibility for cleaning up its great waterways,’” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, one of the participants. “This initiative holds great promise for significant and tangible results.”

The action plan is designed to focus both government and private efforts toward changing public attitudes about litter. In the coming year, each jurisdiction signing the action plan agreed to designate one trash “hot spot” as a demonstration project to clean up, maintain and monitor. They also pledged to develop a regional policy to deal with illegal dumping and enforcement. In addition, they plan to reconvene each year to set new goals.

Trash is more than just an eyesore, Bowen said. It costs jurisdictions money. They have to pick up illegal dump sites, remove debris from roads and parks, and clear trash-clogged stormwater systems. Bowen said that for some parks in the region, nearly half of the maintenance budget goes toward cleaning up trash.

Among the efforts identified in the action plan is better data collection so communities can determine just how much they pay to deal with trash.

The initial focus is on communities in the D.C. area, but Bowen said the effort would eventually become watershedwide.

While litter may seem an intractable problem, Bowen made a comparison to smoking. Through a combination of education and regulation, smoking has become less acceptable over the years. She believes a similar approach will work with trash.

“It is about how to change people’s behavior,” she said. “I think it’s unacceptable the way that we’ve let trash be a socially acceptable status quo situation for so many years.”

She hopes the partnership helps local governments to pool resources to support new eduction efforts, and helps mobilize an army of volunteers to help combat the problem.

The region may adopt techniques from other places as well. Presenters at the summit cited the example of Los Angeles, which in 2004 approved a bond to fund anti-trash efforts such as more frequent street sweeping and establishing catch basins in stormwater systems to prevent refuse from reaching waterways.

Ironically, dealing with trash and litter was a major focus of the environmental movement at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970. The focus of groups today has largely moved onto other issues. But the trash is still around.

“I think environmentalists did a disservice dropping trash,” Bowen said. “We don’t feel that trash is the most pressing environmental issue, but we feel that if we can’t even deal with trash, we can’t deal with the other bigger issues that we need to deal with.”

If people can’t fix a problem they can see, such as trash, Bowen said, it’s unlikely they can fix a problem they cannot see, such as excess nutrients flowing off their land and heading toward the Chesapeake Bay. Getting people to deal with their trash, she said, builds their awareness of what’s heading downstream.

“It’s a lot easier to deal with trash than nutrients,” Bowen said. “And quite honestly, through trash you will get to nutrients.”

While the communities phase in the action plan, the annual cleanups will go on. This year’s is set for April 8 and will involve hundreds of sites and as many as 6,000 volunteers, Bowen said.

For information about the action plan and the cleanup, visit www.trashfreepotomac.org.