Just How Much Trash Is In The Mississippi River?

Aug 24, 2020 by


August 24th, 2020 by 

The other day, I saw a tweet from retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore in which he asked our state’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to force the U.S. Coast Guard to clean up the plastic trash along the Mississippi River. “Don’t Trash Louisiana,” he said in the tweet and shared pictures of the river filled with trash.


Every time I’ve gone down to the riverfront to enjoy the breeze and watch the barges, I’ve seen trash in the water — trash that was too far into the river for me to wade in and retrieve it. You don’t want to get caught up in the current of the Mississippi — it’s deadly. Plus, there’s gators and cottonmouths in the river as well. Not to mention sewerage and other trash that Trump, under his new EPA rule, allowed farmers and corporate industry to pour into the river — which is the source of drinking water to millions of Americans, including myself.

Upon seeing the hero of Hurricane Katrina’s tweet, I wanted to look into what was being done about the trash in our rivers. A simple Google news search showed that not much was being done. Sure, there are organizations such as Make A Change and the annual Mississippi Coastal Area Cleanup, and also the pledge one can make to keep our rivers clean that is promoted by American Rivers, but more needs to be done. These are three awesome initiatives that were the first things I found.

The most recent articles I found with the key terms “plastic trash in the Mississippi River” were stories from 2018. The Memphis Flyer reported that mayors along the Mississippi River aimed to reduce plastic trash in the river in September of 2018. The goal was to reduce waste by 20% by 2020. This was announced during the annual meeting of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative (MRCTI), which is a group of 85 mayors from cities along the river ranging from Minnesota to Louisiana.

“Plastics are what we refer to as a persistent pollutant. Plastics don’t break down, they simply become smaller and eventually turn into dangerous confetti that spreads toxins and accumulates in the food chain eventually harming all of us through the food we eat and the water we drink,” said Mayor Johnson of St. Gabriel, LA, and co-chair of MRCTI.

Also in 2018, MPR News reported that there are almost 9 million tons of plastic in the ocean and it comes from many sources. The mayors along the river not only want to take action on how much ocean plastic comes from inland sources, but they also explained just how the Mississippi plays a critical role in this. “The Mississippi River drains an expansive 31-state landscape, it becomes clear that possibly 40 percent of plastic pollution in the Gulf originates from the Mississippi River,” said Mayor Rita Albrecht of Bemidji, MN.

Back in March, Phillip DaClown shared a video on his YouTube channel. In the video, he filmed trash in the river. The trash can be seen next to a levee, and there is a business located directly from the corner there. “It’s unbelievable how many irresponsible people do not know how to throw trash away. Most of all plastic bottles everywhere, once again, clean up your act Louisiana,” he wrote in the YouTube description.

The Invisible Plastics In The Mississippi River

In a massive research study that started in 2016 and ended in 2019, Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi researched microplastics in the Mississippi River. Also in this effort were scientists from St. Louis University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Central Florida, who teamed up to sample the river at 11 sites. Of these sites, 8 were in St Louis, where three major tributaries met the Mississippi. The other 3 sites were here in Louisiana just before the river flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.

This project, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, estimated that plastic debris in the world’s ocean can vary from less than 244,000 metric tons floating (visible) to 4.8–12.7 million metric tons loaded from terrestrial inputs annually. Those estimates came form open ocean surveys and plastic consumption or waste disposal data.

While the familiar imagery of turtles being stuck on a coke can ring and whales with bellies full of plastic bags come to mind, there is an even worse problem. This problem is the microplastics that are being dumped into the oceans via our rivers and streams. One major source of these microplastics — plastic particles so tiny that you need a microscope to see them — is the Mississippi River. In fact, the study suggested that it’s “likely” one of the largest sources of the plastic in our oceans. The river is home to more than 72 million people and drains 40% of the nation. It receives the most waste from wastewater treatment discharges.

“Examining our samples under the microscope, we found materials that looked like plastic in all of our samples,” they noted in their findings. Fibers accounted for 96% of these materials, while other particles made up the remaining 4%. Upon analyzing these materials even further, they determined that only 10% of them were fully plastic while 64% were semi-synthetic. This means that they were made from materials that were a mix of natural and plastic materials. The most common fully plastic material they found was polyester. The most common semi-synthetic material they found was a cotton blend made up of cotton, rayon, nylon, and spandex.

One thing they noted was that these materials, which are heavily used in modern textiles, showed that they may have come from the treated wastewater discharges.

Final Thoughts

We need more awareness. When I performed a simple Google search on trash and plastic in the Mississippi River, I saw a lot of old articles but nothing recent. Upon taking my search to YouTube, I came across a lot of fishing videos as well as old videos that focused on trash or pollution in the Mississippi. It’s still a major problem, but it seems that people have stopped talking about it.

I agree with Phillip DaClown — it’s not that hard to put trash in trash cans. Do better, people.

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