QC mayors tackle persistent problem of plastic pollution in Mississippi River

Local News

Nine mayors from throughout the Quad Cities banded together Friday morning to launch a new plastic pollution data collection project in the region, with the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative.

The initiative operates under the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI) and mayors of the Mississippi River, in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme and the University of Georgia.

Using the free ‘Debris Tracker’ app developed by the University of Georgia, community volunteers will help track plastics and other trash to help scientists, policy-makers, businesses, and community members take informed action to combat pollution.

“The reduction of pollution in the river will not only benefit our community’s health and pride, but it will also make our primary drinking source more secure,” said Bettendorf Mayor Bob Gallagher, immediate past chair of the MRCTI.

“The Mississippi River is America’s most essential inland waterway, providing hundreds of billions of gallons of water each day to key industries, as well as drinking water to 20 million people in 50 cities in 10 states, as it does for us in the Quad Cities.”

MRCTI represents over 100 mayors up and down the 2,318-mile length of the Mississippi River. In September 2018, the group had its annual conference in the QC, then making a new commitment to better control, remove and reduce plastic waste throughout the river.

Bettendorf Mayor Bob Gallagher, left, is pictured on the river Friday with LeClaire Mayor Ray Allen (behind him at left), Riverdale Mayor Mike Bawden, Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms, East Moline Mayor Reggie Freeman, Davenport Mayor Mike Matson and Moline Mayor Sangeetha Rayapati (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“Plastic waste in our water is an increasingly urgent problem,” Gallagher said Friday at Jetty Park, outside the Isle Bettendorf Casino and Hotel. “Reduce, reuse and restore are the hallmarks of our plastic waste reduction campaign. Since 20 million people throughout 50 cities are drinking the surface water from the Mississippi River – including us here in the Quad Cities, it is vital that we act in a coordinated and systematic fashion to address floatable waste.”

The economy along the Mississippi generates $450 billion in annual revenues, he said, including manufacturing and tourism that depend on clean water.

Plastic poses a danger

“Plastic waste presents a danger to our freshwater economy, which we can no longer ignore,” Gallagher said. The river is a staple of our economy and an asset to our environment, he noted.

As part of the new initiative, residents, businesses and organizations are encouraged to document and remove plastic waste. The data collected will help MRCTI to reduce such waste.

All data collected is open-sourced and will be analyzed to better understand the state of plastic pollution along the Mississippi River. This QC pilot phase will be the first of its kind in the area in an ongoing endeavor to promote education and outreach about plastics in freshwater systems. 

Jenna Jambeck, distinguished professor of environmental engineering at University of Georgia, holds up a GPS tracker that was later put into the Mississippi River (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“Citizen science allows us to work together with communities to capture data on what is entering the environment, close to the source,” said Jenna Jambeck, Distinguished Professor in Environmental Engineering at the University of Georgia and a National Geographic Fellow. “This scale of data collection would be impossible without the participation of thousands of community members along the river to inform upstream solutions to plastic pollution.”

They have used the app in three other cities so far, with over 75,000 items tracked by over 1,000 people, she said.

Critical to solving the problem

“Knowing where plastic is and isn’t in our environment is a critical component to solving this pollution initiative,” Jambeck said. “I’m just so excited we’re all here, that all cities in the Quad Cities are joining today.”

She also brought a GPS tracker (that Gallagher later threw into the river), to better understand how plastic travels within the river system.

Data already has been collected in the QC, and anyone can see the data at debristracker.org/Mississippi.

The data collected will generate a critical baseline for decision-makers in both the private and public sectors, against which to judge the success of their efforts to reduce plastic pollution flowing into the river and to inspire effective policy action.

The tracker will help identify sources of plastic pollution and prevent waste from getting into the river. Gallagher said 80 percent of that waste comes from land-based sources.

“From our roadways to our waterways, mayors on both sides of the river are putting in the work, because we recognize our residents deserve clean water, clean land and a clean community in which we can all thrive,” he said.

“We all need to do a better job of stopping plastics before they get into our river,” said Scott Maddasion, Mayor of Clinton, and MRCTI Iowa State Chair. “We need to work with citizens for better disposal practices. We need to work with corporations to reduce their plastic use and ensure what plastics can be recyclable.”

Scott Maddasion, Mayor of Clinton, speaks Friday, Oct. 15 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“Working with our citizens across borders is already critical in places like the Quad Cities, which work across state borders to solve a variety of issues,” he said. “Coming together as a collective group makes it easier to work with corporate partners to make changes to their practices, to stop plastic pollution.”

“It is a daunting task that can only be achieved by working together,” Maddasion said.

“It’s an honor to be part of a collaboration with all these mayors on such a critical issue,” Gallagher said.

Davenport Mayor Mike Matson speaks at Friday’s event outside the Isle Bettendorf Casino and Hotel (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Davenport Mayor Mike Matson called the river our greatest asset, which brings the QC together.

“The Mississippi is a vital part of our community and what we can do to take away the plastic and debris to make the Mississippi even greater than it is, I’m happy to be a small part,” he said.

Cleaning up trash from the river

Megan Fox, communication and HR manager for Waste Commission of Scott County, has been a longtime partner in Xstream Cleanup. Over 17 years, volunteers have spent 57,000 hours cleaning up over 1.1 million pounds of debris.

“We have called on our dedicated Xstream Cleanup volunteers to take action to enhance our environmental cleanups with our new citizen science data collection approach, and to cut pollution out of our watershed,” Fox said.

Megan Fox of the Waste Commission of Scott County, speaks at Friday’s event on the Mississippi River, with the new I-74 bridge as backdrop (photo by Jonathan Turner).

People can get involved in the Citizen Science Initiative all month; for more information, click HERE.

“We are more than excited to be part of this effort, and kick off the collection efforts today in the Quad Cities,” Fox said.

Plastic waste that continuously enters the Mississippi River poses a large threat to environmental quality and ecosystem. As the drainage system for 40% of the continental U.S., plastic waste and other litter travels through storm drains and smaller waterways into the river and its tributaries, ultimately making way to the Gulf of Mexico and into the ocean.

Approximately 11 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans each year, with rivers contributing to a significant portion of that amount.

“We are delighted that the Quad Cities’ have stepped up to tackle plastic pollution along the Mississippi River, through this citizen science-based initiative,” Barbara Hendrie, director of UN Environment Programme’s North America Office, said in a release. “We need to tackle marine litter at source and at sea, including in our major river systems. Thanks to Quad Cities for this leadership.”

Brian Ritter, executive director of Nahant Marsh in Davenport, said Nahant is the largest urban wetland on the Upper Mississippi and home to thousands of species that depend on the river for their ability to survive and thrive.

Nahant Marsh is partners with Xstream Cleanup, which does annual cleanups along the river in the QC, including lots of plastic.

Brian Ritter, executive director of Davenport’s Nahant Marsh, speaks at Friday’s event (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We still have an issue on the river,” Ritter said, noting in the fall of 2019, they had volunteers pick up 33 bags of trash along a one-mile section of the river (mainly plastic), with 80 tires. In 2020, they picked up 28 bags of trash and 121 tires.

“We thought we were done, but in May of this year, we picked up another 88 bags of trash and 67 tires,” he said. “We’ve been asking around, where is all this trash coming from and folks in Davenport tell us it’s coming from Bettendorf. The folks in Bettendorf say it’s coming from Moline.

“Regardless of where it’s coming from, we’re ecstatic this app has been developed, because we can start tracking plastic and other materials coming into the river,” Ritter said. “But we can also take action to do something about it. I’m ecstatic the mayors are behind this initiative.”

Join cleanup on Saturday

Nahant Marsh is doing a fall cleanup on Saturday starting at 9 a.m., using the Debris Tracker app for the first time. Gallagher also is board chair for the Waste Commission of Scott County.

“An outgrowth of this work is the reduction of pollution in the river, which will save us money cleaning the water for consumption,” he said.

“Today is a great day for the Quad Cities, the Mississippi River Watershed, and all of our waterways,” said Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms. “As a city bordered by two waterways, the Mississippi and Rock Rivers, floatable waste and all its impacts are particularly felt in my community. Waterways and ports support over 48,000 Illinois jobs and directly contribute $6.4 billion to our state’s economy. Thus, it is vital we learn where waste is and whose it is so we can create change.”

Understanding the state of plastic pollution

The effort will run through Oct. 31, and all data collected during this time using the free, open-sourced app Marine Debris Tracker, under the MRCTI tab, will be analyzed to help understand the state of plastic pollution along the Mississippi River. The QC data snapshot is part of an ongoing endeavor to promote education and outreach about plastics in inland waters and support local data collection events in Mississippi watershed communities. The app is current available on Android and iPhone.

You can find the Marine Debris Tracker in the App Store and Google Play, and make sure to use the MRCTI tab.


Xstream Cleanup is hosting local information on the initiative, the app, tracking maps and partner led events, as well as ways individuals can get supplies to conduct debris and data collection on their own.

“It’s always inspiring to work with ambitious, innovative, visionary leaders, like the ones we have behind us,” Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of MRCTI, said Friday. He specifically recognized Gallagher, as immediate past co-chair and past Iowa state chair, and presented him a special MRCTI disaster response vest.

“It’s the exact same type of vest that was procured for FEMA site commanders, responding to disasters,” Wellenkamp said. Restoration of the area is not just getting back to where you were, but getting back better, he noted.

MRCTI executive director Colin Wellenkamp with a disaster response vest (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“Mayor Gallagher of Bettendorf, Iowa, has lived that idea on this corridor for several years now,” he added.

MRCTI addresses infrastructure, community development, river water quality and habitat restoration, flooding and floodplain issues, river-focused recreation, sustainable economies, and celebration of the river culture and history.

Bettendorf Mayor Bob Gallagher gets his special MRCTI vest from group director Colin Wellenkamp on Friday morning, Oct. 15 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

An Emmy-winning documentary on the global plastic pollution crisis, “The Story of Plastic,” will be shown at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport, on Sunday at 2 p.m. Part of the Environmental Film Series, the event admission is $5, and tickets can be reserved at riveraction.org. A talk-back following the film will be held with Kathy Morris, executive director of the Waste Commission of Scott County.

To learn more about the new initiative, visit the UN Environment Programme website.

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