Sorting through the trash

MARSHALL – They only had to look at the vacant lot to see there were a lot of plastic bags to pick up. But after studying and weighing the litter that volunteers picked up during an April 10 event, Melinda Kawalek said there were still some surprises in store.

In this case, it was the kind of plastic bags that seemed unusual. Instead of just shopping bags like you would get at a store checkout, people seemed to have thrown away a lot of the clear plastic bags used for produce at the grocery store. It’s information that could prove helpful in raising local awareness about littering, Kawalek said.

Kawalek, a GreenCorps member working in Marshall, was one of the people who helped organize a litter cleanup event in the lot between Pizza Ranch and Menards in Marshall. On April 12, she and three volunteers also helped sort and study the trash that area residents picked up. The goal was to collect data on the amount and kind of garbage that ended up in the lot.

Volunteers in the cleanup event April 10 had picked up a total of more than 241 pounds of litter, Kawalek said. About 56 pounds of that litter came from the lot between Pizza Ranch and Menards, which was the target area for the study. Cleanup volunteers had collected litter into separate bags for plastic shopping bags, fast-food containers, and miscellaneous trash.

Kawalek said sorting volunteers went through all the collected shopping bags and food containers, as well as a sampling of the miscellaneous trash. Overall, more than 48 percent of the sorted trash was made up of recyclable materials, Kawalek said. About 14 percent of the trash was plastic shopping bags, 10 percent was fast food packaging, and about 24 percent was other trash of some kind.

Going by weight, recyclable materials also made up most of the sorted trash, Kawalek said. About 27 pounds of recyclable materials were collected, including a lot of corrugated cardboard, she said. The sorted trash also included about eight pounds of plastic shopping bags, more than five pounds of fast-food packaging and more than 13 pounds of “other stuff,” she said.

Kawalek and the sorting volunteers also kept track of where the plastic bag litter came from. Of the nearly 450 plastic bags picked up from the lot, about half were either not marked with a store name or were too degraded to tell.

“We expected there would be some bags that were going to be unidentifiable,” she said. Of those bags, she said, “We were really surprised by the number of produce bags.”

Many of the clear plastic bags were still flat, as if they’d never been opened and used, she said.

A total of 24 plastic shopping bags came from Hy-Vee and 167 bags came from Wal-Mart. Kawalek said this likely reflects the location where the bags were found, close to the Marshall Wal-Mart, as well as the number of people who shop there.

Kawalek said she plans to collect more data on trash picked up by local volunteers during a cleanup of the Redwood River on Wednesday. She’ll bring the information to members of the Marshall GreenStep group, who will talk about ways to put the data to use. Kawalek said the trash study could be helpful in encouraging people to conserve.

“There could always be more use of reusable bags,” she said. Kawalek said there are even reusable mesh bags made for items like fresh produce.