Litter Free Chicago-Calumet River

Chicago is an internationally acclaimed city, a world leader in architecture, art, music and so much more. The Chicago-Calumet River system is the reason the city is here, as it provides the connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, providing a path for goods and information to flow throughout our country and the world. It also connects communities along 156 miles through the city and suburbs, offering a quite place to relax, fish, or spend time with loved ones.

Unfortunately, litter is a world-wide problem which is not just an eyesore, it hurts people and wildlife, and the Chicago area is no exception. Currently, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the City of Chicago skimmer boats scoop trash from the river, removing an average annually of 3,095 cubic yards of debris, but it's not enough. 

Litter is harmful to the ecosystem, people and wildlife in countless ways - it trips or tangles us up in fishing line, leaks chemicals or creates sharp hazards. The tiniest pieces of trash are often being eaten by wildlife, disrupting their digestive systems, causing many to starve. 

Studies show the economic costs of litter are considerable as well. According to Keep America Beautiful’s 2020 National Litter Study:

  • Litter cleanup costs the U.S. an estimated $11.5 billion every year, with 80% of the cost paid by businesses.
  • Property values decrease in a community by over 7% when the community has a prevalent litter issue.  Some 60% of property appraisers would reduce a home’s value if it was littered.
  • The litter-related economic consequences include loss in tourism, expenses to fix vehicles damaged by litter, negative public perception of a community when reports of local wildlife hurt by litter are in the news, and costs connected to avoidable injuries to animals and humans.

Litter Free Task Force

We need everyone's help to keep our city and rivers beautiful. In 2018, with support from Mars Wrigley Foundation, Friends began organizing the Litter Free Task Force to bring together businesses and non-profits like Shedd Aquarium, WM, and Loyola University Chicago to create resources, share information and promote events, behaviors, and policies working towards a Litter Free Chicago-Calumet River system. Each group brings perspective, resources and expertise that builds our ability to reduce litter and waste. 

Data Collection Guides Solutions 

One critical member of the task force is Loyola University’s Dr. Timothy Hoellein who studies river trash. Task Force members collect data during our cleanups cataloging it by material and by source to provide data specific to our city. All kinds of things are found in the river - cigarette butts, VHS tapes, action figures, plastic bottles, bags, car parts. Some are there by accident, carried by wind, stormdrains or animals, some are still dumped on purpose.

By far what is found is food packaging and plastics of all kinds. 

Categorized by source,
50% of litter is food packaging. 
Categorized by material, 50% of litter is plastic.

This data is closely aligned with national data. The increase in plastic production over the last 50 years is tremendous. In 1976, there was 50 million metric tons of plastic produced globally, by 2021, that number rose to an astronomical 390.7 million metric tons, according to Statista. Plastic breaks down into the hard-to-see-but increasingly present microplastics. Dr. Hoellein’s research found more than 93 percent of fish examined in the Chicago-area waterways have some form of plastic present inside them. While Friends works through partnerships to change policy on issues like single-use plastics, we also recognize the need for each of us to individually do what we can to attack this stubborn problem.

Together, by reducing plastic use, we and future generations will enjoy safer, healthier and more prosperous communities and rivers, and help address climate change by significantly decreasing the enormous amount of energy required for plastic production.

Get Involved 

There are so many ways your help is needed, truly needed, to reduce waste and battle against litter in our rivers.

Help at our annual Chicago River Day cleanup, or organize a volunteer cleanup utilizing the Litter Free Toolkit  and Litter Free Supply Stations. Help track our collective impact by sharing your feedback on reducing litter in our Litter Free Survey and adding your cleanup experiences to our Litter Free Map.

Going beyond cleanups, use the City of Chicago's 311 app or website to report a littered area, request trash bins, or pick up of overflowing trash bins. Use your purchasing power and stop buying single-use plastics like bottled water, silverware, straws and cups. Learn more about the policy work we are collaborating with partners on at the local, state, and federal levels which seek solutions to eliminating single-use plastic items.