Every spring, Ed Raduazo and Robert O’Hanlon venture out to Little Hunting Creek in the Mount Vernon area for a ritual both find distasteful: picking up heaps of decaying trash.
“These things are heavy even when they’re empty,” Raduazo, 72, complained Friday, pushing a mud-filled metal shopping cart up the creek bed.
The men were removing big objects from the creek’s polluted water in advance of a broader annual cleanup effort planned Saturday that will feature scores of volunteer crews working up and down the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and their tributaries.
Many volunteers say the effort feels futile. Every year, they clean up. Every year, the mountains of trash quickly reappear.
“It’s insane,” said Betsy Martin, a member of the Friends of Little Hunting Creek group, which has been working to clean the site for 11 years. “It takes the burden off the people who litter and puts it on those who don’t litter, who are out there picking up after the ones who did.”
Frustration over dumping throughout the Potomac watershed has led to some important legislative changes in recent years, environmental groups say.
Most notably, 5 cent fees on plastic shopping bags in the District and Montgomery County have helped reduce the number of bags floating in the water or draped on trees, said Alena Rosen, spokeswoman for the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which has sponsored the Potomac cleanup for the past 26 years.
In Northern Virginia, however, the fight for a bag tax has been unsuccessful, largely because of opposition in Richmond, where state lawmakers would have to approve such a program. The General Assembly also has been unreceptive to legislation requiring deposits on plastic bottles — a mechanism that environmental groups say could cut down on the hundreds of empty plastic bottles found every year along creeks and rivers.
Proposals for a bottle deposit have been aggressively fought by the state’s beverage industry trade group. “It’s a dinosaur,” said Charles Duvall, a lobbyist with the Virginia Beverage Association. “People have found that it creates more headaches than solutions.”
Instead, retailers in Virginia contribute to a state litter control and recycling fund, which is then parceled out to municipalities to spend on anti-litter programs.
Out of the nearly $1.9 million collected last year, Fairfax County received the largest portion — about $128,000, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Jennifer Cole, who heads a nonprofit organization called the Clean Fairfax Council, said the funds administered by her group are used for educational campaigns and community cleanups throughout Fairfax, including its watersheds. But, she added, the money goes quickly.
“Gloves and garbage bags really don’t seem expensive, but they really are when you buy them at bulk level,” Cole said.
That leaves the majority of litter removal to volunteers, with some help from local officials.
Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) has organized the cleanup of a stretch of Little Hunting Creek in his district for the past three years, while trying without success to make it possible for local governments to hold retailers more accountable for litter.
Nearly 170 shopping carts have been pulled from the creek’s polluted waters in those three years, he said, many of them from the big box stores that have recently opened along nearby Route 1.
“People who don’t have cars can’t drive up and down to the shopping center, so they walk to the store and push their stuff home,” said Surovell, speculating on the origins of the problem. “Then they leave the carts in the storm ditch, and a storm will wash the cart down into the creek.”
On Friday, Raduazo and O’Hanlon sweated and groaned as they worked to clear away three shopping carts, a mattress and a car tire that had formed a dam in the creek.
The job required a chain hoist, and good cheer between two friends.
“This one’s from Wally World,” said O’Hanlon, pulling on a Wal-Mart shopping cart that apparently was made before that company installed antitheft wheel locks on its carts last year.
Further upstream was a mosaic of human consumption — water and beer bottles, organic juice cartons, fast-food containers, children’s toys, bags clinging to rocks and even a pair of pants hanging from a tree branch.
The men speculated that most of the debris had washed in from a concrete storm basin behind a nearby shopping center, although there were also signs of homeless camps and people who had gone to the creek to party.
During an earlier visit to the creek, Raduazo lamented over having to clear so much trash from the area where his two daughters had played as children.
The area also had once reminded him of the creek where he had played as a boy in Maryland.
“You look at this and say: Would you let your kids go in this stream?” he said, over the sound of babbling water and the crunch of his boots on plastic water bottles.