Taking Ownership of Our Waterways
Rivers and lakes are vital features of our natural landscape, providing us with drinking water, recreation and natural beauty. Yet byproducts from our age of convenience such as excessive trash generated by single-use plastics that end up in our rivers have been an ongoing threat to the health of our waterways. Dallas entrepreneur and environmental activist Garrett Boone is co-founder of The Container Store and an investor in the TreeHouse home upgrade company. He serves on the boards of eco-minded nonprofits that include Trinity Park Conservancy and Groundwork Dallas.
About what residents can do to protect Dallas’ local waterway, the Trinity River’s Elm Fork. Boone says, “I wasn’t too active in environmental issues until Dallas hosted a sustainability conference in 2002 featuring environmental scientist Amory Lovins. I heard him speak about building efficiencies, and at that time, we were building a new facility for The Container Store. Lovins had some great ideas, and I realized then that it makes economic sense for businesses to be energy-efficient; you’re spending less money on utility bills and using fewer resources, and you are also reducing your carbon footprint. I began to understand then that being a profitable business and a sustainable business are synergistic.”
In 2006, Texas was involved in a headlong rush to permit 19 dirty coal-powered plants. “I joined my friends David Littman and Trammell Crow, Jr. to create Texas Business for Clean Air,” says Boone. “We recruited 350 business leaders from across the state, many of which had never been involved in environmental issues before, but they realized from a business standpoint that air pollution was a bad for business. We generated awareness and took our case to the Texas Legislature and helped halt the plants. That was my first major step, and since then, I’ve become involved in groups committed to water issues and creating national park-quality outdoor spaces in this wonderful area we have.”
He notes, “Every time it rains, there is a tsunami of floatable trash coming down the [Trinity] river—litter that people throw on the ground or out of car windows, as well as trash that flies out of the back of pickup trucks. Then there’s trash falling from overflowing public or store trash cans, unmaintained retail parking lots, overflowing or improperly enclosed dumpsters—it’s from a myriad of different sources. The list goes on and on.” He advises that although there are littering laws, they are difficult to enforce, and people are rarely fined for littering. “It takes a never-ending volunteer effort to keep the river clean, and it only stays clean until the next rain.” According to Boone.
“The volunteers that clean the watersheds see the volume of trash, so they’re aware of what a problem it is, but it has not yet penetrated the general public. Many people still don’t make the connection that if you choose to throw trash on the ground or put trash in an overflowing trash can and it falls on the ground, you have chosen to pollute the Trinity River,” laments Boone. “I’ve become aware of a practice called ‘plogging,’ which is picking up litter while jogging. You can also pick up litter while walking. I’ve adopted the mindset that while I’m out walking my dog, if I come across a piece of trash, I now own it. Even though someone else threw it on the ground and I’m angry that they chose to litter, now that I’m in front of it, I own it and it needs to be picked up.”
Groundwork Dallas is working on a public information campaign to get people to understand the problem, and call out those that are littering. “Say something when you see someone littering,” entreats Boone. “Also, small pieces of trash like cigarette butts and bottle caps are just as damaging as larger cups and cans. Wildlife can choke on those little pieces of trash.”
More businesses and organizations are calling Groundwork and asking to be a part of their efforts. “Our staff is very good at organizing cleanups, and we’ve created soft trails through forests that are graded properly to address storm water runoff, explains Boone. “The forests already have its inhabitants—the birds and animals—so we created a nonintrusive connection between people and the environment. We’ve recently restored 11 acres of a swampy lake area with native plants and vegetation to help filter storm water. Countless Styrofoam pellets and bottles were removed from the water, and we created a hiking trail. There’s now a healthy meadow population. It was a trash dump, and now it’s a nature preserve between two major roads.”
Boone advises, “In Dallas, like in any city, we need to take spaces that are already there and turn them into public spaces. Volunteer help is critical, and people need to take responsibility for the environment and be aware that the ways they dispose of things have implications. When you take a plastic bag, there’s a good chance it will eventually become litter. Everybody has to realize they do make a difference.”
Groundwork Dallas schedules weekly waterway clean ups on most Saturdays. For more information, to find out about scheduled cleanups and to sign up for future notifications, visit GroundworkDallas.org.