St. Louis

The weather had cooled significantly. We were certainly in a different local climate having traveled up the Mississippi River over four days with stops in Vidalia, Louisiana; Natchez, Mississippi; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Jackson, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; and Cairo, Illinois before making it to St. Louis, Missouri, our second pilot city in the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative (more on the stops in between in subsequent posts). We had learned so much about the history and context of the river as we slowly traveled and followed its path northward.

We got in late afternoon and pulled into our spot at the closest RV Park to The River, but across the bridge from St. Louis in East St. Louis, Illinois. It was a Casino RV Park, which seems an odd choice, until you realize they are often the only places in the city and also on the river, which is where we need to be to conduct our work (and they are never too close to the casino itself). It was mostly a big fenced parking lot with a random tree at the end of a row to dot the landscape, but definitely a comfortable place to park and stay. Looking across the river, we could see The Gateway Arch, bending over the river.

Trying for a socially-distanced dinner out, we went to The Old Spaghetti Factory downtown. It was a quiet Thursday night. The kids had never been to OSF, but they love pasta, so it was an easy pick. They enjoyed Italian sodas for the first time, and our youngest experimented with putting mac-n-cheese on his cheese bread (result = if you love cheese, this is a winner!). It was a fun family meal with many laughs. Then we had to run an errand to purchase supplies to work on the bottle tags, but we didn’t stay up too late because we had work starting early in the morning.

Friday we woke up early as a family to go to a National Geographic Educator’s classroom (6th Grade Geography) at Bryan Middle School in Weldon Spring, MO. It was about a 40 minute drive from East St. Louis. We arrived, along with a graduate student from my group Sheridan Finder, and met Rhonda O’Keefe, an amazing teacher that had her class use Debris Tracker to collect data for the Initiative. Some students had even gone out to track over the weekend to collect data from the yellow squares that were a part of our map (we had a photo together after the talk). She also held a poster contest and Abby Means won the grand prize! She really understood – and illustrated in such a creative way – how litter could make its way into the Mississippi River and then to the ocean! With our older son being in 6th grade, he really enjoyed seeing another middle school, interacting with the students and discussing what it was like to be on expedition. We all had fun playing True/False where Rhonda asked me to give fun “facts” about my life that the students had to guess which were true and which were false – the boys helped me think of things to say. Hints – I have not yet been to 7 continents (6 of them though!); I did play trumpet in high school; I have been to India many times, but I have never (nor should anyone!) pet a tiger. We left wishing we could spend more time engaging with students and our kids were really inspired by the interaction.

It was Friday afternoon by the time we were done at the school and after a late lunch we decided to go back into St. Louis, see if there was any litter to track near The Gateway Arch National Park (there was little, but some cigarette butts and food wrappers), and I snapped a pic of the trash and recycle bins there (something I do all around the world – look for the coffee table book one day). Then we decided to visit the museum at the end of the day. The Arch museum has been completely renovated as of 2018. No longer just a love-letter to the explorers “conquering” the West, some of the most impactful exhibits were the maps showing the murder and forced relocation of Native American’s from their lands (e.g., through the Trail of Tears) and video narratives from Native Americans continuing to battle the results of their persecution and what they hope for going forward. The museum experience was powerful and an important learning experience for everyone.

Saturday, April 17 was St. Louis’ big day. In fact, it was officially declared “Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative Launch Day” by the Mayor. We are so grateful to Charlene Waggoner, the President of The Greenway Network, who led the organization of this event along with all the incredible partners (it takes a village!). There was high interest from the press about the project – it is the home area of the Executive Director of MRCTI, Colin Wellencamp, and the Plastic Waste Reduction Campaign Manager, Jennifer Wendt, who has played a huge role in organizing this entire Initiative. All three TV stations planned to show up to talk with them and I had to be there by 7:30am in case anyone wanted to talk to me about the science of the project. I did a couple interviews and then the event kicked off at 9am. Due to the mayoral election, the St. Louis mayor was not able to attend (and now a big congratulations to Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, the first black female mayor in the city’s history), so the Mayor of Kimmswick and the Mayor of East St. Louis (where we were staying!) came and spoke. It was nice to hear from them both. For my part, there was interest around Debris Tracker and bottle tags and this time we had one to launch. Yolandea Wood and her team, who had kayaked the entire Mississippi River in 2017, took the bottle out and launched it. All three TV stations followed it from a boat alongside that Jenny Wendt and I also got to be on.

Where did the bottle go? Data from bottle tags launched in St. Louis and St. Paul can be found here. Our academic partner in St. Louis, Elizabeth Hasenmueller at St. Louis University, was also able to attend the launch and cleanup as well. We are seeing from the data that the bottles really tend to get hung up on barge platforms. But do release once the barges move! So we keep watching… After the speaking events at North Riverfront Park, there was a big clean-up – many volunteers helped clean up trash and log it with Debris Tracker. Many partners were involved, and one partner said they were especially enthusiastic about collecting data – the Missouri Stream Team, led by Brian Waldrop, who has mobilized thousands of people to work for clean water and streams in Missouri. Also, the Rotary Club with Jill Pietrusinski at the helm, was a big partner. All of the partners and volunteers were amazing and we are so grateful to them all. Matt and I focused on the parking lot area with a lot of food wrappers and cigarette butts. The park and parking lot looked great when the clean-up was complete.

That evening we had a debrief session eating local St. Louis style pizza (yum!) and we happened to catch both news stories on TV (KMOV Story here; Fox 2 Story below). Afterwards, we were ready for some rest after the long, but productive, day.

Sunday morning came quickly and we woke knowing our next pit-stop spot was going to be the Quad Cities area, specifically, Rock Island, Illinois where our next campsite was. We had to say goodbye (for now!) to St. Louis and all our new friends and partners, but we had to get on our way to our final destination in Minnesota… continuing to track and clean litter along the way.

These blog posts are from my family’s journey along the main stem of the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Minnesota for the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative. Started by MRCTI and UN Environment Programme – North America, along with National Geographic Society and us at the University of Georgia College of Engineering, using open data, citizen science-based Debris Tracker. Find out how you can join in and help.

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