Litter Free Chicago - Calumet River

Chicago is an internationally acclaimed city, a world leader in architecture, art, music and so much more, and our rivers are the reason the city is here, with the Chicago River system connecting communities along 156 miles through the city and suburbs to each other and the world. Unfortunately, litter is a world-wide problem which 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 3,095 cubic yards of debris in 2018, but it's not enough.

A variety of strategies are required to ensure the Chicago and Calumet Rivers are Litter Free. Partnerships are critical, so Friends' is collaborating with REI, Shedd Aquarium, Waste Management, Loyola University’s Dr. Timothy Hoellein, with the support of Mars Wrigley Foundation on the Litter Free Chicago-Calumet River initiative. Together we've collected data and learned about 50% of litter is plastic and catagorized by type, 50% is food packaging. This is why we need everyone's help to keep our city and rivers beautiful.

Volunteer to help us #LoseTheLitter:

  • Join Friends’ volunteer CREW to let us know your interests and receive our monthly email with the latest information on upcoming volunteer opportunities.
  • Borrow cleanup supplies from our new Litter Free Supply Stations. Go to our supply station page and follow the instructions to find a station near you and reserve garbage bags and grabbers to lead your very own cleanup.
  • Sign up for Chicago River Day. Every year Friends hosts a cleanup with over 60 locations throughout the watershed. Bring your friends and family to this beloved annual event and get to know other Chicagoans like you who are making and impact.
  • Join us for one of our Canoes and Cleans held monthly throughout the watershed. This is a great way to explore different parts of the river, immerse yourself in its beauty, and make an immediate impact on the health of the river.
  • Help us 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.
  • Check out #LosetheLitter, #LitterFreeChicagoCalumetRiver, and #chicagoriver; hashtags on social media to see Friends and partners in action, working to make the river and its river-edge communities litter free. Use these hashtags when posting about your efforts toward a Litter Free Lifestyle.

Time to adopt a litter free lifestyle!

Since litter is a human-made problem, it requires a human-made solution. 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. Based on our research of local litter data and embracing best practices from litter free campaigns across the world, here are the most important ways you can help make a Litter Free Chicago-Calumet River:

  • Be aware of your purchasing power.
    • Food packaging is one of the top five things found in many litter cleanups, and we can reduce this litter by not buying individually packaged goods.
    • Buy products in bulk and use reusable containers to portion food. This will likely save you money and send a message to producers that you will not buy single serving packaged goods.
    • Stop buying single-use plastics; many of individual water bottles, silverware, straws and cups end up in our river and lake. Creating plastic also uses an enormous amount of energy which is contributing to climate change.
  • Get in the habit of bringing your own reuseable grocery bags, water bottles and coffee cups with you. Many coffee shops offer a discount if you bring your own cup.
  • Follow the recycling guidelines for the Blue Bins in Chicago and up your recycling! Though recycling has increased, a majority of plastics still are not recycled.
  • Place your recycling can next to your garbage can at home, work or school with simple signage to encourage and educate people about recycling.
  • Close garbage can lids to keep critters and wind from spilling waste into the street, which is then only a breeze or a rainstorm away from being in the river. 
  • Utilize social media! Share with your community the ways you are living a Litter Free Lifestyle and helping to make our beautiful city Litter Free. Post about your efforts to make a #LitterFreeChicagoCalumetRiver to encourage your friends and family to make simple everyday choices that make an impact. Repost Friends information, tell us your efforts in the comment section or send us your ideas on ways to move toward a Litter Free Lifestyle.

Support Policy Actions 

  • Call your legislative representatives and voice your support for policies that reduce plastic waste and improve water, environmental, and public health.

Data collection is guiding our solutions toward a litter free life:

Not just an eyesore, litter is damaging to wildlife, people and plants who call the river and its watershed home. To better understand this issue, Friends is teaming up with Loyola University’s Dr. Timothy Hoellein to study of river trash with support from Mars Wrigley Foundation and in partnership with REI, Shedd Aquarium, Waste Management. Check out our partnerships page to learn more about the Litter Free Task Force sponsored by Mars Wrigley Foundation. 

The top five items found in the river are cigarette butts, plastic bottles and caps, food packaging, plastic bags, and aluminum cans as well as the hard-to-see-but increasingly present microplastics which are the result of plastic items breaking down. 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. The tiniest pieces of trash are often being eaten by wildlife, disrupting their digestive systems

Litter is not just harmful to the health of people and wildlife. Studies show the economic costs of litter are considerable. 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.