Likely you've seen them on your walks --stray masks and plastic gloves that were critical to helping contain COVID 19--now littering the environment. The pandemic has resulted in single-use plastics such as gloves and masks being ubiquitous for the promotion of public health. While the products are extremely important for containment of the pandemic, an important discussion about sustainability and waste is now taking place.

Against this backdrop, Professor Anne McNeil had the idea to organize a department-wide effort to beautify the parks along the Huron River by encouraging members of the University of Michigan Chemistry community to remove trash and debris as a way to celebrate Earth Day in April 2021. The U-M group adapted a blueprint for such events that McNeil obtained from a colleague,  Professor Megan Fieser at the University of Southern California. 

Postdocs Tan Nguyen and Danielle Fagnani organized the two 2021 clean-up events.

Excited at the prospect of helping to clean up community nature areas, McNeil Group postdoctoral scholars Danielle Fagnani and Tan Nguyen were immediately interested in organizing the event. They volunteered to help publicize, organize locations for cleanup, and prepare supplies such as trash bags, gloves, and hand sanitizer, with help from other McNeil Group members. “Our first event in April 2021 was the first departmental event since COVID started, and we were really intentional about making it safe,” McNeil said.

One member from each team picked up supplies at staggered times, and the teams met directly at their point of cleanup instead of gathering in one location. This was an adaptation from Professor Fieser’s cleanups, where all participants were able to go to the same beach and disperse over a large area. Because the areas along the Huron River are smaller and more contained, the changes allowed for a safe event while simultaneously covering a large portion of the Watershed in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti communities.

McNeil, Nguyen, and Fagnani were pleased to find support from the community and the Chemistry Department, which provided the majority of funding for supplies like gloves and hand sanitizer, and provided participants with T-shirts designed by Fagnani. The shirts were printed with recycled fabric technology courtesy of a donation from Alison Narayan, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Life Sciences Institute. 

Chemistry Department faculty, staff, postdocs, and graduate students were well represented in the clean-up crews, but McNeil also invited the students from her undergraduate Honors 232 course entitled “The Anthropocene,” and many of those students participated as well.

Because so many of the participants were scientists or connected to the chemistry community, a fun aspect of the cleanup was the use of the Debris Tracker app. The app is a National Geographic initiative that allows for “citizen scientists” to provide location and composition data about the litter found in their communities. One member of each team downloaded the app to their mobile device, and each piece of waste was logged by type and material. For example, plastic materials could be organized by categories such as a straw, bag, bottle, or utensil. The app also allows the data to be aggregated for all groups that participated in the event, so the success of the cleanups could be quantified, and teams with the most pieces of trash picked up could be recognized and given a small prize

After realizing that the community aspect was so crucial to the successful cleanup in April 2021,  the McNeil lab organized another event in September. They intentionally held the event after incoming graduate students started in the department, providing a way for new students to meet other department members. Nguyen, who joined the McNeil lab in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, recalled that, “the cleanup was the first ever event” he got to meet with other people in the department. “It was something really important to me last year,” he added.

Success! For the environment and the participants

Both events were successful, with debris removed from the environment totaling over 5,500 in April and 13,000 in September. In addition to the massive amounts of trash that were collected and documented,  organizers found ways that this Huron River Cleanup benefitted them personally. For example, McNeil shared that she brought her kids to be her teammates, and it helped to emphasize their family’s commitment to living sustainably by spending their time doing something positive for the planet.

For Fagnani, seeing the amount of trash that could be moving into the waterway systems was an enlightening experience that motivates her research in the lab. “It was also definitely eye opening to see how much trash was out there, especially plastic pieces,” she said. This emphasized the value of her own research as she works on the upcycling of plastic and polymer materials, because plastic materials have such longevity when left in the environment.

McNeil shared that she received feedback from participants who really enjoyed seeing new parts of the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Park Systems. Her own family discovered a new park close to their home that is now one of their favorite places to visit.

Join us April 23

McNeil says that after an event like this is run for the first time, it’s relatively simple to repeat the process with publicizing, organizing groups, and ordering supplies. The Huron River Cleanup will be repeated oin April 23, 2022. To sign up or find more information follow our social media or visit the McNeil lab website.

Michigan Chemistry Twitter
Michigan Chemistry Instagram

McNeil Group Website

Video of the 2021 Spring Clean Up

Debris tracker App