A Living River; Our Duty and Connection to Nature

April 1, 2022

Tons of trash in the river!

Jamie Irby discusses her experience cleaning the Santa Cruz river and urges residents of Tucson to think deeply about their littering habits. 


The Santa Cruz River was once a beauty that connected the residents of Tucson to nature, but now is the biggest trash bin in the county. Sonoran Institute has recognized this and has dedicated their efforts to bring it back to its original beauty, hoping that this lost relationship will return as well. After joining the Earth Grant cohort, I began working with Luke Cole and Claire Zugmeyer from Sonoran Institute on their ongoing study of litter in the Santa Cruz River. If you have already checked out the earlier blog post - “Studying Trash for a Cleaner Future” from December 2nd, I highly recommend! This post is from a different perspective - the story of how my relationship with nature changed by the course of a river.

Humans and nature have had a very rocky relationship. From the very first tree chopped down for firewood to the industrial revolution and oil spills, our species has slowly been drifting away from connecting to what sustains us and helps us thrive. It took me the majority of my life to realize this just because it has been so normalized in society - every day we drive cars that pollute our air; we buy food in plastic containers that fill our oceans; we litter. Even if we don’t mean to. Even if we were sure our chipotle bag made it into the trash bin at the park, or that we are sure someone else will pick it up later when it is blown by the wind. And the truth is it does get picked up - by the river.


Selfie at a trash cleanup with Tucson Clean and Beautiful.

Photo Credit: Jamie Irby

Everyone knows not to litter, but it would be hard to find someone who hasn’t tossed a piece of trash out the window or left their trash on the bench unknowingly. It’s not really something that we see on the news, or make our New Year’s resolution, but it is a big problem. Working on this project has made me face the reality of it. I wasn’t always the environmentalist I am today; I ate meat like a real carnivore, I used plastic bag after plastic bag, and I didn’t always ensure that my trash made it into a secure bin. Even when I did turn to Environmental Science as a major, litter still wasn’t on my radar. It has been barely 5 months working in the Santa Cruz River and I’ve made it my mission to start trash talking - or rather talking about trash. Hearing and reading about it is one thing, but actually being in the river, counting and collecting the dozens of plastic bags and candy wrappers that are as abundant as stones, forced me to understand the issue. In terms of addressing this problem, it seems obvious to just put more trash cans everywhere, giving people more opportunity to throw their trash away. But the majority of people would probably just think “I don’t make that big of a difference, I barely litter once a week! And it doesn’t even affect me anyway.” If they were able to understand the gravity of the issue, and were informed of how their once-a-week litter stacks up, I think they would at least think twice before throwing their burger bag out the window. If people were more informed, maybe they would actually use the trash cans we put everywhere, or ask businesses to switch to compostable food packaging, or attend river cleanups. I’m not asking nor expecting everyone to be a perfect environmentalist – I, myself, am far from it. But I do ask for everyone to care 1% more, because that 1%, like their once-a-week litter, stacks up.

I didn’t know what to expect when I got accepted into the Earth Grant program - this was its first year in existence and I was going in completely blind, but open minded. Never in my wildest imaginations did I expect it to give me this incredible opportunity to work with Luke and Claire at the Sonoran Institute and to incorporate their passions and projects as my own. The work that we are doing, as well as the other students in the Earth Grant cohort, is truly making a difference in Tucson and I am so incredibly honored and proud to be a part of it. The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far: I lost the connection to why I cared about the environment to begin with, but this program and my mentors helped me find it. Still, we have a long way to go!

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