Be a Superhero

Published 2:17 pm Thursday, July 2, 2015

Usually it’s only superheroes who get an opportunity to save the planet, but last month I had my chance. I didn’t have to soar through the atmosphere with a jet pack or survive beneath a frozen sea. I didn’t have to venture to an alternate dimension or even travel very far. I helped save the planet right here in Farmville. It took just a few hours one Saturday afternoon.

On June 6, 2015, seventeen people from several local organizations (including Friends of High Bridge Trail State Park, Friends of the Appomattox River, and Clean Virginia Waterways) worked together to pick up trash in and around Gross Creek, the narrow tributary that runs through town, east of Main Street. Over the course of three hours we waded through water, weeds, and muck and picked up all sorts of human detritus: plastic bags, bottles, paper plates, food wrappers, Styrofoam pieces, broken toys, and more. We bagged (literally) 800 pounds of trash. Not bad for an afternoon’s haul.

How did this help save the planet? Gross Creek isn’t just an isolated stretch of water. It empties into the Appomattox River, which in turn drains into the James River. The James River pours itself into the Chesapeake Bay near the edge of the Atlantic. Every piece of litter we picked up did not get washed downstream, did not find its way into the Chesapeake Bay, and did not end up in the planet’s interconnected marine environments.

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Large pieces of marine debris are an eyesore and can damage aquatic habitats. Tiny pieces can end up in the food chain through the stomachs of birds, fish, and other aquatic animals. Pieces of all sizes provide substrate for the transportation of invasive species that can wreak havoc on fisheries and ecosystems.

One of the biggest problems is actually one of the hardest to see. Once trash—especially plastic—enters the ocean, wave action and sunlight combine to break it into smaller and smaller pieces. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) describes the resulting mix as a kind of “peppery soup” suspended in the water column. This type of particulate debris builds up in the centers of gigantic surface ocean currents called gyres. The accumulation in the northern Pacific, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is perhaps the most infamous, but similar areas exist in all Earth’s oceans.

Cleaning up will be a major—perhaps even insurmountable—task. Some experts claim operating the number of ships required to do the job would likely cause more environmental damage than would be mitigated. Furthermore, filtering microscopic particles out of seawater could destroy vast amounts of phytoplankton, and phytoplankton photosynthesis creates half of the world’s oxygen. One of the most innovative proposals comes from Boyan Slat, a 20-year-old from the Netherlands, who is working to deploy a massive debris collection system, but even his best-case scenarios won’t be enough if we keep adding more trash to the oceans.

In light of the problem’s enormity, you may be wondering how picking up a mere 800 pounds of litter could help. That effort was part of a larger project called Clean the Bay Day, an annual event undertaken by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation ( On that same afternoon, 6,000 volunteers worked throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed at 275 different sites. The day’s catch totaled 105,000 pounds of trash. Since 1989, 140,000 Clean the Bay Day volunteers have collected 6.2 million pounds of trash. It does all add up.

Ironically, most of the trash we picked up seemed to be picnic leftovers, stuff lost or left behind by people who were out presumably to enjoy the beauty of nature. If you find yourself at a picnic this summer, you can help save the planet by making sure your trash ends up in appropriate receptacles. If you want to do more, Clean Virginia Waterways will be hosting clean up events this fall. And, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation already has next year’s Clean the Bay Day scheduled (June 4, 2016). Keep your eyes open for your opportunity to participate. You can be a superhero, too.

Karen Bellenir, a Farmville resident since 2009, blogs for Pier Perspectives at and maintains an archive of past columns at She also serves as Editorial Director for Wordwright LLC, a company that provides services to authors, publishers, and other producers of print and electronic publications (

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