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Trash Traps In River Des Peres Watershed Stop Litter At Its Source

Blue2Blue Conservation’s Josh Wilson stands in Deer Creek, where the largest of the three traps was recently installed.
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Blue2Blue Conservation’s Josh Wilson stands in Deer Creek, where the largest of the three traps was recently installed.

The severe flooding the St. Louis region saw in 2019 is still a vivid memory for Rachel Bartels — especially the scenes of trash along a swollen River des Peres. But even more horrifying to her than the eyesore was what the flooding revealed about common attitudes toward the waterway and the litter that travels down it, eventually winding up in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s kind of like a toilet bowl if you would,” one city official told Fox 2 at the time, while discouraging residents from going out into the canal to clean it up. “Once the water starts going down [and] it gets clear of the bridges, most of that stuff will flush out, just like your toilet does in your house.”

Bartels, who heads the nonprofit Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper, was horrified by the comparison — and motivated to try to change things, including “this mentality of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, the St. Louis native joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at a newly launched pilot project, Trash Free St. Louis, that aims to stop trash in its waterborne tracks.

A yearlong collaboration between the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper, Blue2Blue Conservation and researchers at Wichita State University’s Environmental Finance Center, the effort centers on three litter-collection devices installed at area creeks that feed into the River des Peres.

One is located in St. Louis proper, with the other two in Maplewood and University City.

“This is a pilot project, so the whole point of it is to see what is possible,” Bartels said, “what we can do [and] what works in Missouri’s streams, and kind of tailor the solutions for our region.”

Local officials and community volunteers pick up trash Monday along Deer Creek in Maplewood.
Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Local officials and community volunteers pick up trash Monday along Deer Creek in Maplewood.

As volunteers collect the trash from the newly installed traps in the St. Louis area, researchers will gather key information about the materials coming out of the streams. And that data will all wind up in a spreadsheet managed by Michelle Dehaven at Wichita State’s Environmental Finance Center.

“They’ll have a sheet or an app [where] they’ll be marking what the piece of trash is and what condition it is,” Dehaven explained. “Our biggest hope is to create a picture of what kind of trash is flowing down the river.”

Working from that data, project partners hope to then glean insights into how to further improve St. Louis’ waterways.

“We want to be able to trace the plastics and the trash in waterways back to the source,” Bartels said, “so that we can maybe identify where it’s coming from, if it’s happening in certain locations or during certain seasons or times of the year. And we hope to support effective source mitigation efforts and really focus on these upstream solutions to improve water quality [rather] than continuing to clean up the rivers as a more passive activity, more of a Band-Aid.”

Earlier this week, St. Louis on the Air stopped by Deer Creek Park in Maplewood as a handful of volunteers and local officials gathered to celebrate the installation of the largest of the three trash traps.

Josh Wilson, co-founder of Blue2Blue Conservation, was on hand at the creek. He described how that trap, a Trash Trout built by the nonprofit Asheville GreenWorks in North Carolina, is expected to capture floating trash.

“The buoys on the side will siphon the garbage into the cage,” Wilson said, “and once it’s in the cage it should stay there. … If it rains, more garbage will come down the river and I’ll have to check on it more.”

He noted that there is no bottom to the cage, which allows the device to catch trash without impeding wildlife traffic.

“All the booms in all the creeks, wildlife can get around them very easily,” Wilson said.

St. Louis Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia (D-6th Ward) has also been involved with getting Trash Free St. Louis off the ground. She became more actively involved in river issues following the record-breaking floods in 2015.

“In 1993 I was young but was sandbagging, and we were told that this was sort of a 500-year event,” Ingrassia recalled. “And subsequent to 2015, we’ve had another few major events. And one of those, in 2019, really put a lot of trash in River des Peres. … I started working on a solution, and discovered the trash trap solution.

“And so I reached out to the St. Louis Aquarium, [and] they agreed to fund the first trap. And we were hoping to put it in River des Peres, but the conservation partners that we worked with decided that we would pilot on three streams that fed into [it] to see if that worked. And then hopefully the results of this pilot program will enable us to put in on River des Peres or in other areas that feed into the River des Peres.”

St. Louis is located in the fourth-largest watershed in the world. Organizers of Trash Free St. Louis note that 80% of ocean pollution originates inland, and they see the Gateway City as an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to addressing challenges around the globe.

Do you think these trash traps can be a gamechanger for St. Louis waterways? Why or why not? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the AirFacebook group, and help inform our coverage.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.