One of the most beautiful and refreshing outdoor experiences I have had in the U.S was hiking using my trekking poles the Great Smoky Mountains. Just like the Mississippi River, it is seen internationally as one of America’s most pristine natural landmarks. I decided to camp out near the Ocoee River because of its beautiful hiking trails and one day, as I was walking to a nearby waterfall, I noticed how much litter was covering up the natural green background of the trail. I wondered when the park ranger was going to clean up the site. “Surely someone should be doing this, it can’t be left here.” I thought.


Photo Credit: Horia Varlan

As I made my way to the waterfall, I began to think about what was stopping me from picking up at least some of the litter I had seen. I wrestled with this for no more than 2 seconds, grabbing and filling a plastic Ziploc bag that had been left at the base of the waterfall by a previous hiker. Stuff like glass wine bottles to candy wrappers quickly filled the bag. I
walked back up the trail with a full bag of litter in hand and was able to find a trash can near the campsite.

That experience has taught me that we all have a stake in the environment we live in, and while some of us choose to hinder its beauty, the few who do care for it should strive to make it better, even when were not obligated to do so.


Photo Credit: Nels Israelson

Why? Because damage to the environment is causing harm to not only humans, but also wildlife living or connected to water systems. The Great Smoky Mountain region is not the only place suffering from the carelessness of humans. The Mississippi River, its tributaries, and the Gulf of Mexico (the mouth of the River) are also plagued with litter. This infestation of litter hinders and kills many species living in both the oceans and rivers like the Mississippi.

Plastic in rivers will either float or sink, depending on its density. The plastic that floats will prevent light from entering the lower levels of the river, depleting resources that plants and animals need. Plastic that reaches benthic levels (lowest water level) can disrupt growth of plankton and plants. However, two of the biggest issues are that 1) animals suffocate when they become entangled in plastic, and 2) animals choke to death when they mistake plastic as food.

In fact, Researchers at Plymouth University1 found that nearly 700 different species have been impacted by human-made debrisThis high volume is concerning once you take into account that these are only the documented cases.

Clearly, both animals and humans are adversely affected by plastic pollution. In this three-part blog series, I have discussed how plastic can harm all walks of life and how it can damage ecosystems. Additionally, plastic is not biodegradable, therefore it stays in natural systems for thousands of years.  We all have the responsibility to dispose of our trash properly, because as much as we like to say plastic is the problem, it is humans who created it. We must also continue to be innovative and develop ways to make plastic a reusable source of energy.3

The 1 Mississippi campaign brings people together to clean up and protect America’s greatest River. The first step is to become a River Citizen. If you have not already become a River Citizen, you can sign up here. River Citizens can help protect the river in many ways, such as participating in River cleanups, as shown here in the photo to the right, which shows the results of a river cleanup initiated by 1 Mississippi Outreach Assistant, Tanner Aljets. Help the Mississippi River today!

By Calvin Price

Bluestem Intern




  1. Andrew Merrington, “New study reveals the global impact of debris on marine life.” (Plymouth University, February 2015).