By Paula White
I first started working at The Watershed Project as an intern in 2010 for the Taking Out the Trash Project. This was a partnership with Clean Water Action that involved tracing street litter to the point of sale. I had recently finished researching trash impaired watersheds for my master’s thesis project and was interested in exploring practical solutions to the trash problem. The goal of the project was to identify the mostly commonly littered items and determine which could be reduced through changes in local business practices. We developed a checklist of commonly litter items and got started on data collecting, with volunteers from the community pitching in to pick up trash from the sidewalks and gutters of highly trash impacted commercial districts. When we looked at the data, we found that much of the trash came from take-out food packaging. For example, we found large numbers of paper napkins and plastic straws littering the streets. Businesses could both reduce their costs and the amount of litter on the streets by simply asking customers whether they needed a napkin or a straw.
Since then, I have continued to be involved with various trash reduction efforts, both in school settings and outdoors in streams and shorelines. I like to say that I work at the intersection of trash and education. Working for The Watershed Project gives me the opportunity to engage people of all ages in concrete actions to reduce trash and improve the health of our watersheds. I’ve had great conversations with people on Coastal Cleanup Day who, after picking up and carefully tallying hundreds of small items, feel compelled to change their own consumption patterns by going straw-free or switching to a reusable water bottle. One person’s decision to use a reusable water bottle has a ripple effect on the larger society. I can remember when plastic water bottles were routinely provided at conferences and meetings, even of environmental organizations. This is no longer the case. What’s more, the entire state of California has banned the plastic bag! That’s a huge win for the environment.
This year The Watershed Project turns 20. Besides having a truly fabulous birthday party, I hope that The Watershed Project continues to bring people together to work outdoors. Being outsideis a great way to recharge. We are hyperconnected to one another in cyberspace, but for me the virtual world can’t compete with feeling the sun (or rain) on my face, hearing bird calls, or smelling the earth while planting a tree. Last week during a field trip, a teacher mentioned that his 3rd graders had recently voted on whether they would rather spend more time learning outside or spend more time learning with technology. All but one student preferred being outside. I’m with them!