The final count: 6,839.
That’s how many pieces of trash volunteers collected and categorized during the annual spring cleanup. The data offer a picture, for the first time, of the reality of Jackson Hole litter.
Central Wyoming College-Jackson professor Kirsten Kapp led the data collection to see what patterns tracking the trash would reveal — and to remind people of the harm that consumer choices have on the environment.
“We’ve become so comfortable with the convenience of using plastics that we kind of forget about it,” she said. “And I think we just need to really think more about where our waste goes and how to reduce that.”
Plastic accounted for the overwhelming majority of the garbage — a whopping 4,562 items. It came in many forms: food wrappers, bottle caps, styrofoam and, taking the lead with 790 occurrences, cigarettes (their filters contain plastic).
Besides plastic, volunteers picked up 941 pieces of paper, 591 pieces of metal, 69 pieces of rubber, 160 pieces of glass, 162 pieces of fabric, and 354 other items that didn’t fit neatly into those categories.
Rachael Miller, co-founder of the Rozalia Project, an organization that studies marine debris and helps carry out data cleanups around the country, joined the Jackson group for one such cleanup in April. She wasn’t surprised by the results.
“It all looked pretty familiar,” she said. “Really typical array of consumer trash.”
For Kapp the data underestimate the magnitude of the problem. Not everyone who helped at the spring cleanup filled out a data sheet, and of those who did she had to exclude the results from some who simply wrote large numbers that seemed to be rough estimates rather than precise tallies.
“Typically I feel as though we’re a fairly litter-conscious community,” she said, but the data are “still pretty overwhelming.”
Such massive amounts of litter — volunteers hauled more than a truckload out of Karns Meadow — seem out of place in Jackson Hole, a community that prides itself on its environmental stewardship. But the problem runs deeper than simple aesthetic harm.
Kapp studies microplastics, the miniscule beads that shed from larger pieces of plastic over time, polluting oceans and, it turns out, rivers. Most research into microplastics has focused on their effect on the world’s largest bodies of water, and, as Kapp put it, “inland communities are so far from the ocean that it wasn’t really on anyone’s radar.”
But Kapp’s own study of the Snake and Columbia rivers shows that it’s just as much a problem in freshwater. She took samples every 50 miles from Grand Teton National Park to the mouth of the Columbia and found plenty of high-concentration spots along the way.
Though the park itself has remained pure, she discovered moderate amounts of microplastic after the river flows through the more inhabited parts of Teton County.
The hurt done by microplastics to marine organisms and the food chain — all the way up to humankind — is well documented. Fish and other ocean-dwellers ingest microplastics, and in turn we eat them. The health effects are unclear, but in Kapp’s opinion, why risk it?
“That’s enough for me to say we know there’s negative impacts, so why not just reduce our plastic use while we’re ahead?” she said. “I’d much rather do that than not do anything and realize there are some negative consequences.”
Though annual cleanups are a long-standing tradition in Jackson, Kapp said, “we’ve just been cleaning up the trash, and that doesn’t help reduce it.”
With the recent ban on plastic shopping bags in Jackson the community has taken steps to cut back on waste. Bags accounted for 7 % of the total plastic catalogued during the cleanup, but they are “notorious” for how easily they break down into microplastics, said Heather Overholser, director of Teton County Public Works and former director of Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling.
Though she deems the bag ban a success, Overholser said voluntary waste reduction on an individual level is worth aspiring to.
Beyond that, she said, other places have prohibited various single-use plastics, from to-go containers to straws to plastic water bottles. Canada, as a country, plans to do away with single-use plastics altogether, though the details remain uncertain.
“I don’t think that making these changes is as hard as we think,” she said.
Ideally, a better understanding of Jackson Hole litter will guide the way, leading to more informed policy decisions, said Kapp, who intends to keep collecting data each year.
Such detailed data can point to solutions, Miller said, especially “solutions that are relevant to the locality.”
For example, knowing what kinds of trash are most common could suggest bans on other items. And knowing the garbage hot spots could suggest places to post signs, or set requirements for securing garbage so it doesn’t blow away.
“I’m really excited about the data,” Kapp said. “Just looking at these numbers is an important way to raise awareness.”