The fight against pollution in the Santa Cruz River

By Madison Beal/El Inde

On a rainy Sunday morning in September, a group begins to gather alongside the Santa Cruz River in the heart of the city of Tucson. The end of the summer monsoon season is fast approaching, but storms continue to roll through to the delight of the desert dwellers standing nearby. One by one, people trickle in and exchange greetings while they seek solace from the rain underneath the Cushing Street Bridge. As the people move in towards the bridge, dressed in their raincoats and hiking boots, so does the water in the riverbed. 

Water spills, from the Cushing Street Wash towards the north and the 18th Street Wash towards the south, out into the riverbed where these separate streams eventually meet to create one steady flow. While watching the water fall into the channel, the onlookers can’t help but notice the steady stream of trash that comes along with it. Styrofoam cups, plastic bags, straws, empty chip bags, cigarette buds all swirl together, littering the urban riparian habitat. 

“It’s like pulling invasive species because it’s everywhere,” said Angel Breault, a local naturalist and educator who is the reason people gather in this place week after week. “You can’t look at a native plant without seeing a Polar Pop next to it.”

Every Sunday morning since November of 2020, people from the Tucson community have met at this spot along the river to clean up garbage, remove invasive grasses and enjoy the diversity of life that colors the riverbed. Breault mobilized this stewardship project, known as Reconciliation on the River or Reconciliación en el Río, after watching life return to this once dry stretch of river. While the stewards have been able to beat back the buffelgrass after months of hard work, the trash has continued to be a consistent presence.

Angel Breault, creator of the Reconciliation on the River stewardship project, pulls a Styrofoam Polar Pop out of the downtown reach of the Santa Cruz River on Sunday Sept. 26, 2021. Styrofoam cups are one of the most common pieces of trash found in the river.
(Photograph by Madison Beal)

“The trash will never go away until we address these issues as a watershed — as an entire watershed,” Breault said. “Every single arroyo in people’s backyards feeds into the Santa Cruz. It’s not going to change until people have an awareness of how these systems function, how this watershed historically works, and understand that, yes, that little wash, that ditch in their backyard connects and acts as a highway for life and water.”

For decades after its waters ran dry in Tucson, the Santa Cruz River was treated more like a ditch and a dump than a significant waterway in the Southwest, and we are still dealing with those repercussions today. In recent years, stakeholders have made a tremendous effort to bring clean water back to the riverbed and revitalize the riparian habitat. But the river’s dedicated defenders seem to be fighting a losing battle when it comes to one major problem: they can’t get rid of the trash. It continues to reappear despite constant cleanup efforts. Some stakeholders have been quick to point fingers at the unhoused community who commonly set up encampments along the river, but the reality is, the garbage is coming from the entire population. 

During this unique moment in Earth’s history when anthropogenic waste has become a seemingly inexorable part of every landscape, people are turning to stakeholder collaboration, scientific innovation and community stewardship in an attempt to reduce pollution in the Santa Cruz and its tributaries.

The Santa Cruz River is a culturally and ecologically significant landmark that has allowed life to flourish in this region for millennia. Archeological evidence has shown that humans have moved along this river’s banks for at least 12,000 years and engaged in agricultural practices here for at least 4,000 years. 

The Hohokam, Pima and O’odham peoples each relied on the river’s water for survival in the arid Sonoran Desert. When European colonizers came to the region in the late 1600s, they saw the abundance that the river allowed, and they too decided to establish settlements that connected their missions from Sonora to Tucson. In the 1800s, people of Mexican, Anglo and Chinese descent all got the same idea. They came to this place and used the river’s surface water to support their lives. Many argue that this river is the reason that Tucson was able to transform from an adobe-lined village to the booming metropolis it is today. 

Water flowing on the Santa Cruz River near “A” Mountain in 1889. (Photograph provided by the Arizona Historical Society)

Despite the growing human presence in the region, historical records indicate that groundwater levels were still high enough in Tucson to sustain springs and lush riparian forests up until the 1900s. By this time, private landowners and government entities were extracting groundwater from greater depths, which led to the drying up of the river and the death of the giant cottonwoods and willows and other aquatic species that had been around for centuries. 

Explorer and journalist Julius Frobel wrote about this part of the river before its downfall in 1855 in a book titled Seven Years Travel in Central America, Northern Mexico, and the Far West of the United States, describing it as being “full of aquatic plants, fish and tortoises of various kinds.” People in the area even harvested and consumed freshwater mussels from the river up until 1915.

The drying of the waterway opened the floodplain to urbanization. As people started to develop new neighborhoods in the area, others began to mine the dry floodplain of the river for sand and gravel in the 1940s, leaving behind empty pits that were eventually filled with garbage — perhaps an ominous foreshadowing to how the river would be treated in the decades to come. Meanwhile, flooding continued to be a problem for the growing communities alongside the river. So much so that in the 1970s, the Pima County Regional Flood Control District restricted the river’s flow through Tucson to a channel lined in soil-cement that serves little ecological function.

“People have disregarded the Santa Cruz River because for generations, people considered it a nonentity,” said Luke Cole, associate director for resilient communities and watersheds at the Sonoran Institute, an environmental nonprofit based out of Tucson. Cole, a friendly ecologist from Boston with salt and pepper speckled hair and steel blue eyes, moved to Tucson and started working at the Sonoran Institute three years ago. As part of his role there, he manages all ongoing projects related to the Santa Cruz River. “I think the trash is there because people have not had reason to care.”  

Cole has had his eye on the issue of trash in the river for a few years now. When the Pima County Regional Flood Control District began holding stakeholder work group meetings for the Santa Cruz River Management Plan in 2019, he was inspired to present an idea that might be able to address the issue of trash in Santa Cruz once and for all. 

The Flood Control District held different meetings along three different stretches of the river from Grant Road to the Pinal County line to discuss potential projects that would seek to improve its management. At each meeting, a big map of the river was hung up and used by stakeholders to point out specific locations where they think something should be addressed. Not surprisingly, trash was an issue that was discussed along each reach.  

It was an especially hot topic at the work group meeting for the northern section of the river from Ina Road to Pinal County, where garbage from upstream tends to accumulate after storms. Cole recalled that it had just rained and snowed in Tucson around Valentine’s Day, and the Santa Cruz River near El Rio Preserve was flowing bank to bank with what looked like a “sea of white Styrofoam.” This was brought up at the meeting and prompted Cole to propose a potential solution. 

“I was like, ‘Ahaaa, I just came from trash world! What about this idea?’” Cole said. He pulled out his phone and started showing some folks pictures of trash traps — huge, grated, metal devices engineered to collect stray trash while allowing water to continue passing through. A few of these devices were installed along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. by the Anacostia Watershed Society — a nonprofit created to address the needs of the river — after they performed a trash study in the area. Since the installation of trash traps at strategic points along the Anacostia River, the devices have collected thousands of pounds of garbage. The data collected through the study of the trash has also resulted in plastic bag fees and the banning of Styrofoam cups in the Washington, D.C. area. 

Cole became aware of the Anacostia Watershed Society’s efforts to minimize pollution along the river while he was working for the city of Washington, D.C. coordinating a tree-planting program in 2015. After hearing consistent feedback about trash at the workgroup meetings, he thought similar action might help address the pollution problem in the Santa Cruz River. 

“The county is putting a lot of time and money and thought and consideration into getting people to use the Santa Cruz and its tributaries more, but if it looks like a dump, it’s going to backfire,” Cole said. “So how do we address that sooner than later? You need a long-term study to do that.” 

Making an Amenity 

Pima County has been trying to restore the Santa Cruz River for decades now. In the 1970s, the county started releasing treated wastewater — also known as effluent — into the riverbed in northwest Tucson. But it wasn’t until 2013 that Pima County completed its largest public works project ever, spending over $600 million, to upgrade the water treatment process resulting in higher-quality effluent being put back into the river. Prior to the completion of the upgrade, Pima County entered into a partnership with the Sonoran Institute to conduct studies that track the environmental conditions along the river and the resulting environmental changes seen after the release of higher-quality effluent. They publish their findings in yearly “Living River” reports. 

Evan Canfield, a fast-talking hydrologist and civil engineer who oversees the Santa Cruz River Management Plan for the Flood Control District, explained that these upgrades transformed a “blighted” part of the river and made it an amenity by both improving the odor of the water and allowing native biodiversity to bounce back. This was a major milestone that displayed how treated wastewater can be used to transform urban riparian habitat. 

In June 2019, Tucson Water implemented a smaller effluent-release along the reach of the river that flows right next to downtown Tucson in partnership with Pima County. They call this project the Santa Cruz River Heritage Project. While it’s smaller in scale, its impacts have rippled throughout the community. “People seem to be getting it a little more,” Cole said. Cleanup efforts  have expanded since Tucsonans watched water and life return to the downtown reach. Previously, these efforts were more focused on smaller washes or tributaries instead of the river itself.

“There’s a lot that this river provides to Tucson and to the broader community,” Cole said. “We live in the middle of the desert, and yet, there’s a fully flowing river here. And it’s flowing in almost all instances because of smart engineering, smart management and good use of the resources that we have—especially in Tucson. And people are paying attention.”

After about a year of discussions, the Sonoran Institute formally took steps to initiate a trash study of their own. They developed a protocol for collecting data and finally held their first official data collection training event on Sept. 16, 2021. It was a warm, sunny day without a single cloud in the sky. The small group of trainees and I met in Barrio Hollywood along the west bank of the Santa Cruz River. 

Cole was there to lead the charge and walk us through the survey step by step. He arrived with a smile on his face and a box of doughnuts for us to share. As bikers zoomed past us down the river loop and different colored butterflies fluttered through the air, we went around in a circle and introduced ourselves like it was the first day of school.

Christine Hoekenga, Axhel Muñoz and Marsha Colbert from Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation all showed up together. These environmental educators were there to experience the field methodology so they can use it to develop a stewardship project for youth in the community. The project, which is rooted in the Leave No Trace principles for protecting parks and wild spaces, will allow kids to participate in real citizen science while learning about the impacts of litter on the environment. 

Jamie Irby, a 22-year-old senior studying environmental science at the University of Arizona and a Sonoran Institute intern, was along for the ride to learn the protocol so she can carry out trash surveys and build the dataset for the study. Irby was connected to the Sonoran Institute after being selected for UA’s Earth Grant Program, a leadership program focused on environmental and community resilience. 

Jamie Irby, Christine Hoekenga, Axhel Muñoz and Marsha Colbert record the type and amount of trash present in a plot along the east bank of the Santa Cruz River. (Photograph by Madison Beal)

Before we set off into the soil-cement lined channel, Cole explained how the trash study seeks to quantify the abundance and locations of different kinds of garbage in the river and its surrounding tributaries. The data will be used to determine how many pounds of trash move through the system, and everything will be geo-referenced to help build a map displaying trash problem areas. This information will aid managers in better understanding what exactly is impairing the Santa Cruz, whether that be hotspots for littering or specific products, like Styrofoam cups and plastic bags. Importantly, it could also inform the Flood Control District about where they can install trash capture devices along the river to prevent some trash from moving freely through the system.

As we began walking down a long ramp towards the riverbed near Saint Mary’s Bridge, we saw a man who appeared to be on his way out. He was lugging a big, battered armchair with him, supporting its weight with his shoulder. We watched and wondered how something like that got into the river in the first place. 

“What sad story must go behind that being lost from somewhere?” Hoekenga recalled a few weeks later. “It’s always just hard to see the amount of trash and some of the items that are there that just seem like they must have a really sad story behind them.”

Surprisingly, larger items like mattresses, couches and armchairs are frequently found in the Santa Cruz and the other watercourses in the city. Some of it comes from illegal dumping — when people abandon furniture, building materials, or large amounts of garbage or green waste outside — and some of it is tied to the unsheltered population in Tucson. For many years now, the rivers and washes in Tucson have served as a safe haven for people who have nowhere else to go. They set up camps, sometimes bringing in furniture or other bulky items, and make temporary outdoor shelters.

When we stepped into the dry riverbed, the ground underneath our feet was soft in some parts and rocky in others. There were black patterns etched into the sand telling stories of how the water had been flowing in this place. 

Cole handed out pencils and clipboards with the datasheets attached, and the group got to work. They used flags and a transect tape to map out a 10×10-meter grid that would serve as their first study site. Then, after the group recorded the site’s GPS coordinates, Cole moved around the grid step by step and pointed out the trash he found. Hoekenga, Irby, Colbert and Muñoz all marked down tallies on their datasheets for each item that was described. 

The group finished the first grid and moved onto their next one. “Alright, it’s going to heat up now,” Cole joked as he approached an area with even more garbage. In total, they found 123 pieces of trash in just two adjacent study sites with plastic bags and plastic containers being the most prevalent. 

Luke Cole calls out the different kinds of trash present along the east bank of the Santa Cruz River for a trash study.
(Photograph by Madison Beal)

“I think that this is all quite preventable,” Cole said. “I will not be surprised if our data show that the trash that’s making its way into the river either can be sequestered in advance, can be prevented by education or more trash barrels—like real simple stuff—because I don’t think that having trash in a river is an inevitable thing.”

While some of the trash winding up in the river might be easily sequestered with trash traps or limited with targeted outreach, there are other sources that are more complicated to address. Some people in the Tucson community have been quick to place blame for the trash on the unsheltered population because of their presence in and around the washes and rivers of the city. They set up camps and accumulate things that can end up littering a specific area or even moving through the watershed when it rains. 

Since 2010, the Flood Control District has received more than 700 complaints about homeless encampments in the watercourses, and the problem appears to be steadily getting worse according to Suzanne Shields, the director of the Flood Control District. The county agency, which owns and maintains most of the riverbeds and washes in Tucson, has spent over $500,000 in the past few years cleaning up the remnants of homeless encampments. The debris and trash removals are so costly due to the need to bring in contractors who can either remove large items or sanitize an area littered with human waste and needles. This year alone the Flood Control District has removed at least 80 tons of trash and debris from homeless encampments in the watercourses.

“We can’t possibly think about this problem without thinking about our homeless challenge,” said Katie Gannon, executive director of Tucson Clean and Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that has been supporting community cleanups around Pima County since the 1980s. “And a lot of folks say, ‘Hey, don’t vilify the houseless people!’ It is a challenging social problem, and it’s complex. As a community, I feel that we need to do much more to address it.”

In 2020 the number of unsheltered homeless individuals in the United States — people sleeping on the street or in their cars —  increased by 7% to over 220,000 people according to an annual national survey. And that was before the pandemic hit. Experts say it will take years to fully understand how the pandemic has impacted homelessness, but there is a consensus that the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. This is the case in Tucson, where unsheltered homelessness has increased by 47% since 2020 leading to not only more people living on the streets, in washes and in desert areas around town, but also to increased visibility of homlessness, heightened community awareness and an increasing number of complaints from people in Tucson who have a problem with homeless people being in their neighborhoods. 

Government agencies and different nonprofit organizations are working to help those without homes get access to permanent shelter and other services, but there currently aren’t enough affordable housing options available in Tucson or enough resources being invested into transitional programs that could help integrate people without homes back into the community. Even when services are available, some of the unhoused are hesitant to accept help that may limit their autonomy or remove them from the support system they find in other people living on the street.

When a given encampment “poses a threat to public safety” or someone files a complaint to the city of Tucson or to Pima County, homeless protocol is initiated. Through the protocol, the area is inspected, law enforcement officials and outreach service providers contact the people at the camp and eventually, a 72-hour notice to vacate is posted at the site. After that, the camps are cleaned up either by a local government agency or a contracted company. While the Tucson Police Department and other city officials have been more lenient towards homeless encampments since the pandemic, they still post notices to vacate when there is illegal activity, when a camp grows to be too messy or where someone persistently complains about the presence of homeless people in their vicinity. Forcing the homeless to leave their camps may reduce visibility of the problem in a given area and satisfy complaining citizens, but it doesn’t serve as a long term solution to the problem. More often than not, this only uproots those who are unhoused and forces them to sleep outside somewhere else.

“You’re dealing with mental illness, and you’re dealing with addiction. And probably a lot of trauma,” Gannon said. “Going out and removing the homeless from a site, what does that do? It’s not a very compassionate approach.”

A Nexus in the Watershed

There are more than 70 usually dry washes in the Tucson Basin. When it rains, water can roar through these washes and carry trash and other stray items through the city into the major watercourses. From there, the larger watercourses eventually drain into the Santa Cruz River, but this process isn’t linear. Sometimes objects get stuck along the way on branches or in the ground and can accumulate, polluting the smaller arroyos that run largely through the neighborhoods of the city. Some Tucsonans have noticed this pollution and have decided to take action through an Adopt-a-Wash program facilitated by Tucson Clean and Beautiful. When a group adopts a given wash, they commit to independent, monthly litter clean-ups in the area that are supported by the nonprofit.

One such group, known as Sustainable Solutions for Arid Lands, has been cleaning up trash along the Alamo Wash for over a decade now. Located in central Tucson east of Craycroft Road, the Alamo Wash flows northwest from below Broadway Boulevard until it eventually drains into the Rillito River. The wash, lined with mature mesquite and palo verde trees up and down its banks, is mostly tucked away in residential areas. 

Bill Halvorson, a 78-year-old retired ecologist who describes himself as more of a nature person than a people person, adopted a stretch of the Alamo Wash in his neighborhood with his wife Jana Guymon after they discovered the Adopt-a-Wash program in 2010. They knew the area needed to be taken care of, so they jumped at the opportunity to take matters into their own hands. Today, the group consists of four members — Halvorson, Guymon, Tyler Cole and Charley Allen. In the last year alone the group has removed at least 7 tons of garbage and debris from the wash and transported it to Los Reales Landfill through 40 separate loads in a pickup truck.

About three years ago, Charley Allen, who also lives in the Harlan Heights neighborhood, noticed the work Halvorson and Guymon were doing and asked if he could join the cleanup team. Allen is a gregarious 72-year-old man with kind eyes and a patchy white mustache. He’s lived in the neighborhood with his husband since 1994. Throughout his life, Allen has always had a passion for helping those who are marginalized by society and have nowhere else to go. “There’s nothing I enjoy more than helping people get resettled,” he told me when we met to talk at Villa Serena Park on a sunny afternoon in October. Allen, who is now retired, is extremely grateful Halvorson and Guymon took him into their group. He loves being outside in the wash and removing garbage from the landscape, but it isn’t the only reason he enjoys walking up and down the Alamo Wash almost every day. 

“I’ll be honest, I came to it for the natural environment and for the activity,” Allen said. “But when we go looking for other washes, when we get caught up, I want to go to the washes for the homeless people. That’s a real passion of mine. I have extraordinary admiration for people that manage to survive.” Then he added, sarcastically, how “We live in ‘the richest country in the world,’ and we force so many of our neighbors to live like that by neglect or on purpose.”

Charley Allen removes a plastic bag from a tree in the Alamo Wash on Nov. 19, 2021. Trash and clothing often get stuck in the canopy of the trees lining the wash after rain storms cause flooding events. (Photograph by Madison Beal)

Prior to joining Halvorson’s group, Allen had never really engaged with the homeless people in his neighborhood. When he began to discover different camps up and down the wash during cleanups, he instantly wanted to get to know the people who he said are “misplaced in his own backyard.” He likes to hear their stories and to help them when he can. 

Allen does this work independently on the side, but Halvorson told me that their cleanups have been going more smoothly since Allen started engaging with not only the homeless people living in the Alamo Wash, but also other people involved in the homeless encampment removal process. Consequently, the group now has a better idea of who lives in a given camp, when a camp will be forced to vacate and when they can remove trash or other items without invading people’s space. 

When I asked Allen and Halvorson if they think most of the trash they pickup is coming from the homeless encampments around Alamo Wash, they both agreed that the trash from the homeless is only one piece of this puzzle of pollution. They said that most of the trash they see is loose municipal garbage — plastic, paper, glass, clothing, car parts, even furniture — that gets swept away when it rains. 

With the heavy monsoon season Tucson experienced this past summer, Allen and Halvorson noticed a significant increase in the amount of trash littering the Alamo Wash. They described the trash coming from homeless encampments as a singular issue that can produce a lot of trash but is more focused in a specific area. They try to collect this trash at its point of origin before it gets into the waste stream through active communication with those who are living around the wash. 

Allen and Halvorson also expressed that another common source of garbage they find comes from incidents of illegal dumping. Halvorson said that, in the past few years, he has noticed both illegal dumping and the presence of homeless encampments have become more common in his neighborhood, but one is not more at fault for the trash than the other.  

It may be easy for some to blame the unhoused community for the pollution seen in the city’s waterways because their lives are so visibly and intimately tied to the environment, but the trash is the responsibility of all the city’s residents — not just the unhoused. And when it comes to properly disposing of trash, the homeless are up against many barriers like not having access to their own trash cans or literally not having anywhere to put their things because they live outdoors. In addition to not having a place to store their items or their trash, people without homes are constantly being forced to leave their camps when the city’s homeless protocol is initiated. When they have to move to a new location, they often struggle with transporting their belongings and are forced to leave things behind. 

“You can pretty much trust and believe that if there’s a homeless person living in the wash, and they leave it, and their camp gets washed down river during a storm, it’s because they were made to leave it,” said James Hayes, who has been living on the streets in Tucson since 2016. “They were told, ‘Oh, you have 72 hours to go.’ And they didn’t have a place to move it or help to move their stuff. So what can they do?”

Hayes and his girlfriend, Tina Casalvera, set up a camp together in the Alamo Wash earlier this year. Casalvera, a 49-year-old from New Jersey, came to Tucson when she was 22 and “fell in love with this place.” She lived here off and on until she decided to permanently resettle here four years ago. Casalvera told me she first experienced homelessness in 2019 after she was wrongfully fired from Walmart and evicted from her apartment when she couldn’t pay her rent on time. She has been unable to find a new place to live with an eviction on her record. 

Despite living outside, Casalvera likes to keep her camps clean. She does the best she can, but she struggles to keep up with the mess that can build up while living without any place to store her things — sometimes with multiple people. The first time Casalvera met Allen, she was cleaning up her campsite on a hot day. He walked up to her and said, “Oh, I’m gonna like you,” and the two have been friends ever since. Casalvera told me the reason she loved staying near the Alamo Wash is because Charlie was there fighting for the people without homes living nearby. “He was willing to go ten extra miles for us,” she said. 

Allen helped Casalvera, Hayes and their other campmates move their camp to different places around the Alamo wash five times this year. In addition to helping them move their things, Allen has advocated for them to get a trash can, a public shower and bathroom from the city to no avail. He said he was told no because the homeless are not taxpayers, and the city does not want to encourage homelessness by making them more comfortable. “That’s just the way things are,” Allen told me. 

Since he couldn’t get the campers a trash can, Allen started to pick up their trash and put it in his own can and the cans of other neighbors in Harlan Heights who have agreed to lend a helping hand. But for every person who is willing to help, there seems to be another who cannot stand the thought of someone who is homeless existing in their line of sight. He joked that some of them must have the Tucson Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team on speed-dial. 

“I can see the looks that you get from people, and it makes you just feel so worthless sometimes,” Casalvera said. “Even though you know what you do every day and what you try to accomplish. You have to do certain things to live. If you can’t get a job, you have to go in a dumpster to get an article of clothing — maybe to go to that interview — because you don’t have the money to buy something to wear. And then people will see you doing that, and automatically, you’re no good because you’re doing it.”

Both Casalvera and Hayes have had to look through people’s trash for clothing and other items they can use to survive. While they’re looking, sometimes they find brand new shoes or appliances or furniture or even clothing that Casalvera said seems like it’s been washed before it gets thrown away. They pointed out that a lot of the things people are throwing in their garbage could easily be donated to people in need. 

“People throw out what they consider trash — because they have money — that the homeless can take and use and reuse and then reuse again because you don’t have the money to just throw away,” Casalvera said. 

Casalvera and Hayes are no longer living near the Alamo Wash. They were forced to leave towards the end of August after they received another 72-hour notice to vacate and are now moving every night instead of establishing a camp in an attempt to avoid the problems that come along with trying to make a place of their own while they are living on the streets. 

A Culture of Waste

Every year, humans extract billions of tons of raw materials from the Earth. We tear down forests and rip the land apart to fuel a linear industrial economy that has radically transformed our planet. 

When resources finally make their way to the end of the line, more often than not, they get wasted. Roughly two-thirds of the materials we extract end up being dispersed back into the environment as unrecoverable waste. This is a problem. Most of the environmental threats we face today — from the climate crisis to biodiversity loss to air and water pollution — can be linked back to our culture of waste.

It is up to us to reshape how we engage with the Earth so we can meet the needs of our people within the limits of our planet. But we can only do this if people are properly informed and if we work together. 

We rarely talk about where everything we use in our everyday lives comes from. The cell phones in our hands, the clothing on our backs, the beds we might be lucky enough to sleep in at night, the food we eat, it all comes from the Earth. When we decide to get rid of it, it doesn’t magically disappear. It all has to end up somewhere. So it ends up in landfills, on our streets, in our oceans, in our rivers. We are drowning in waste. 

Waste being crushed at Los Reales Landfill in Tucson, Ariz. The landfill takes in approximately 2,800 tons of trash everyday. In total, the landfill’s waste footprint spans 283 acres. (Photograph by Madison Beal)

Not only do people need to better understand the linear economy and its consequences, they also need to be aware of how they can dispose of waste responsibly in their communities. In the United States, the duty of waste education often falls upon state and local governments due to the lack of a cohesive federal plan. But our local government agencies cannot single handedly prevent pollution.

“The city doesn’t even come close to having the money and manpower to do the job that needs to be done to maintain a good, healthy environment in the city, and the homeless camps are just one piece of that,” Halvorson said. “We have a problem in this whole country, not just this city, of not having enough people, energy and money to do the job. There are way too many people that are self-interested. So they’re working on what makes me better, what makes me more money, what makes me happier? And it’s not looking out for the overall good.”

When it comes to the waste in our world, the truth is, it’s everyone’s problem. In order to effectively limit pollution, we are going to have to work together in our communities to reduce our consumption, donate what we can, reuse and recycle what we can’t and dispose of our trash responsibly. We should not be depending on others to clean up our collective mess, but luckily for us, there are countless people out there who choose to invest their time and energy into tackling the issue of trash.

In Tucson, Cole from the Sonoran Institute and Irby, the University of Arizona senior, are still doing trash surveys and working to build the database for the Sonoran Institute’s trash study. They plan to continue working over the next few months and feel optimistic that they can use the data they are collecting to inform management decisions surrounding reducing pollution in the Santa Cruz River and its tributaries. 

On Saturday October 23, I ran into Cole and Irby along the Santa Cruz just south of downtown Tucson. It was a cool fall morning — the perfect time to be outside in the Old Pueblo. Tucson Clean and Beautiful was hosting a massive cleanup event along three different reaches of the river they were calling “One Great Day of Caring.” With gloves on and trashbags at the ready, 288 people moved through and near the riverbed to pick up garbage. The volunteers removed an estimated 3,900 pounds of trash and debris across the three sites in 210 large trash bags. It is exactly this kind of action and engagement that might make it possible for someone to one day walk down the Santa Cruz River without the blaring reminder that humans are trashing the Earth. 

“How do you eat an elephant?” Allen asked as we wrapped up our conversation at Villa Serna Park. “One forkful at a time,” he quickly responded with a smile.

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