Connecting the Grass Roots (Volunteer Actions) with Grass Tops (Policy Makers) to Make Change

by Carol Armstrong, Member, Southeastern Pennsylvania Group

The work of thousands of volunteers to clean up the waste they see around them is benefiting our world beyond what can be seen, and unarguably there is less waste around us because of the dedication and idealism of these volunteers.  These local groups document their work on social media, but the actual work done goes far beyond what could be seen if all those posts were aggregated; there are also many silent individuals who clean up their roads and streams without recording it with anyone!  These are modest yet powerful heroes to me.

The effects for Pennsylvania? A cleaner world; fewer macroplastics being buffeted in the environment to release innumerable microplastics to soil, water, and atmosphere; healthier ecosystems; less damage to wildlife; less plastic accumulating in our creeks, rivers, and estuaries; cleaner drinking water.   We can connect this work further by bridging to policy.  New York State is working towards the reduction of plastic pollution, and has become a leader in environmental values and the third state to adopt a constitutional Environmental Rights amendment so that “each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”  Pennsylvania is the second state with a constitutional Environmental Rights amendment that goes on to codify, “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations to come.  As trustee [including our municipal and county governments] of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

To make bridges between volunteer actions and governments ready for action, we need data.  Some groups are collecting data by sorting the trash into categories listed in data sheets that are disseminated by regional groups.  In our area, it is the Ocean Conservancy that makes data sheets available, and aggregates the data for submission to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to understand the patterns of marine plastics around the U.S. and globally.  A step further is to identify the brands of the collected trash.  Ironically, there are far more people willing to collect the trash than to collect data, as observed by the very experienced Buffalo and Niagara Waterkeepers and the Friends of Heinz Refuge.  We need to persist in tracking the waste down to its end points, and make comparisons over conditions (low versus high tide, more impacted by development versus less) and over years.  In a specific region, once enough data is collected, it will show patterns that can be taken back to those corporations whose products are most often found as waste polluting our waterways.  

In November 2023 New York State announced a lawsuit to charge one company, PepsiCo, with producing plastic trash that has become “”a persistent and dangerous form of plastic pollution” for residents of the Buffalo River watershed.” 1  The lawsuit charges that this pollution is endangering Buffalo’s water supply, environment, and the health of people.  Stay tuned to learn how data collected by volunteers (community scientists) may have been helpful in documenting the problem of plastic trash in our waterways and the impetus for changes in policy.

Corrections were made on December 5, 2023:

An earlier version of this article that New York State announced a bill to charge Pepsico. The article has been corrected to read that New York State announced a lawsuit against PepsiCo. 

1. Winters, Joseph. Staff Writer, Grist, November 16, 2023. 

This blog was included as part of the December 2023 Sylvanian newsletter. Please click here to check out more articles from this edition!