Arlington Fairfax Chapter

of the

Izaak Walton League of America

Watershed Conservation Activities


Solid Waste

Over the past few years the Arlington Fairfax Chapter of the IWLA has been responsible for filling up over a 1000 bags with trash that has been picked up from area streams and highways. Of course we are not the only people doing this, volunteers from a number of other area organizations have filled many tens of thousands of bags with litter that they have picked up as well. Our Groupís experience has been that almost all items of trash that our volunteers pick up during a stream cleanup were used at one time to contain, wrap, or pack something else. The most common items by far are beverage containers, disposable plastic shopping bags and fragments of polystyrene foam (styrofoam).

Plastic has become the predominant type of one time use packaging material in most of the World. Unfortunately, once the product is removed from its container, the packaging has loss its value to the consumer who then has to dispose of it. All too often, this material is carelessly discarded on the streets where it is washed down the storm drains and into our local streams and rivers.

Common Types of Trash That We Encounter and their sources

Polystyrene Foam

More commonly known as styrofoam, it has a low tensile strength, is brittle and fragments easily. Used for everything from cups, fast food containers and packing material to household insulation, Polystyrene foam is a very buoyant and common form of trash in the Cheasapeake Bay watershed.

Plastic Beverage Bottles

Commonly made of PETE - Polyethylene terephalate, a thermoplastic polyester.
PETE bottles can be recycled into carpet fiber, polyester fiber fill and other products. Unfortunately, PETE has a low value as scrap material and contamination with PVC and other plastics can render it worthless.

Another type of plastic used for beverage containers, particularly milk jugs is HDPE (High Density Polyethelene). HDPE when exposed to sunlight loses it plastisizers fairly quickly causing it to become increasingly brittle and prone to fragment.

Glass Bottles

Glass is generally inert but broken glass can be a major hazard to pets and children in recreational areas. As a scrap material, glass has a commercial value of less then one cent a pound.

Aluminum Cans

If clean, aluminum cans are one of the more valuable and recyclable forms of trash found in waterways.

Plastic Shopping Bags

Most often made of High Density Polyethelene (HDPE), they are hard to recycle due to the variation in colorants and chemical content. It is likely that most if not all shopping bags collected for recycling are actually used as fuel in a waste to energy facility or landfilled since their scrap value is nil. Generally fragile, when exposed to sunlight they become brittle and fragment but they never truly decay. Small pieces of plastic floating on the water can be mistaken for food by wildlife.

Automobile tires

Tires piled on a float tube being towed by a volunteer.

Generally discarded due to the costs associated with disposing of them. Tires are banned from many landfills due to their tendency to "float" to the surface. Probably the most economical method of disposing of tires is to use them as fuel in a power plant where they can be burnt under controlled conditions. Tires make a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes particularly the Asian Tiger Mosquito.

Home Appliances and other items larger than a bread box.

Volunteers carrying the remains of a washing machine, Mason Neck State Park.

Not as frequently encountered as some other items however not an uncommon find. Over the years, We have pulled out many appliances from our adopted waterway sections including refridgerators, phonograph turntables, a microwave oven, and the odd sewing machine.

Hazardous Chemicals

Every watershed cleanup of trash creates an opportunity to find illegally dumped bottles, cans and drums that contain toxic or environmentally harmful substances hopefully before they leak or break open. Unfortunately such finds are an all too frequent occurence within the Potomac Watershed.

Some examples of this are listed on this page.
Our most common find in this category are plastic bottles containing motor oil, used and unused. Somewhat alarming is that for every plastic motor oil bottle that we find intact, we have find many more where the bottles have been cracked open and the contents rinsed out by the floodwaters that carried them downstream.


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