Last month, we woke up to a raccoon sitting on the hood of our Jeep Cherokee with a small tin bucket stuck on his head. Yes, at first we died laughing at this strange situation. Then, we helped this little masked critter and sent it on its way to cause more mischief.
I wish I had taken a photo, but this image helps paint a pretty good picture. While this was hilarious, it made me wonder about the true impact trash has on wildlife. We asked our friends at Denver Parks and Rec and Jeffco Open Space to shed some light on how Colorado wildlife is impacted by litter and some other hidden benefits that cleanup events provide. Hopefully, this sheds some light on why our team is so crazy about cleanups – and gives you a good laugh about that silly raccoon.
Clean Wildlife Habitats & Preventing Extinction
Researchers estimate that over one million animals die every year after becoming entrapped in or ingesting litter and at least a dozen species become extinct.
The most common killer of animals is ingesting plastic litter, which is especially damaging to birds and fish who gravitate to small plastic objects. In addition to blocking digestive tracts, there is a ripple effect in the food chain when an animal ingests plastic. Larger animals eat smaller animals that ingest microplastics and those toxins impact the health of all animals along the way. Big or small, animals benefit from less trash in their habitat in more ways than you’d think.
Fun Fact: Over half of Colorado’s bird species are residents of cottonwood-willow riparian ecosystems—and this habitat type is the most species-rich and species diverse habitat type in the state (Graul, CPW).
Improved Water Quality
Removing trash and waste from the river’s edge reduces waste that will likely end up in the river and flow downstream to neighboring towns and even states. In addition to improving water quality, picking up trash makes the area safer for others to enjoy.
80% of the trash on the ground ends up in our waterways through storm drains or gusts of wind. (EPA, Sources of Aquatic Trash)
Nature & Mental Health
Exposure to nature has been shown to help with physical and emotional health, and is most commonly proven to reduce anxiety and depression, improve blood pressure, immune function and sleep. Cyndi Karvaski from Denver Parks and Recreation adds, "By keeping our riparian corridors clean, people contribute to other residents' and visitors' ability to enjoy parks and open space. People bicycling, walking, running, and enjoying our river corridors benefit from your stewardship of this wonderful amenity!"
Fun Fact: Park Prescriptions are a real thing. Health care providers can now write patients "Park Prescriptions," a prescription that advises patients to get out into nature for at least two hours a week and tracks their progress. (BC Parks Foundation)
Public Engagement & Change
Scott Waters at Jeffco Open Space says it perfectly, "One of the less obvious benefits of cleanup events is public engagement. It's also why hosting cleanups are so important. By bringing a bunch of folks out on their local landscapes, you begin to raise awareness of the problems at hand. This can lead to further conversation and education, developing stewardship, and even civic and political action if needed to help keep an area clean.
People are ten times as likely to adopt a behavior when they become aware of an issue through observing the actions of others.