Reflections on a Day of Service on the Banks of Bubbly Creek

by Moses Viveros

To conclude its inaugural American Dream Reconsidered Conference last week, Roosevelt hosted a day of service where students, faculty, and staff were able to participate in a variety of different volunteer projects throughout Chicago and in the city of Schaumburg. One of these volunteer sites was Canal Origins Park, situated at the mouth of Bubbly Creek where it joins the South Branch of the Chicago River. For those of you that are not familiar with Bubbly Creek, here’s a brief history lesson.

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Bubbly Creek at Canal Origins Park, Chicago IL (photo: M. Viveros)

Chicago used to be home to a vast number of meatpacking factories. Naturally, with meat packing, there are animal byproducts like entrails, blood, and feces that need to be disposed of (despite the meatpackers’ lurid boast of “using everything but the squeal”). The solution to this from the mid 19th through the mid 20th century was to dispose of this waste by dumping it directly into the Chicago River. There was so much animal waste and byproducts disposed of in the river that the South Fork of the South Branch began to bubble methane and hydrogen sulfide gas as a result of the decomposing animal waste in the riverbed. Hence the name, Bubbly Creek.

Upton Sinclair’s famous muckraking book, The Jungle (1906), goes into great detail about these practices. The book inspired activists who demanded the meatpacking companies be held accountable for their actions and provide for the safe disposal of the waste. Since then, several efforts have been put forth to try and clean up the river. Some of these efforts have included restoring wetlands along certain stretches of the North Branch and replenishing the river via aeration stations, such as the one found along the banks of the Calumet-Sag channel in Blue Island, in an attempt to oxygenate the creek so that it can support life.

Aeration Station at Blue Island

Sidestream Elevated Pool Aeration (SEPA) Station 3 at Blue Island (photo: Metropolitan Water Reclamation District)

Aeration works to introduce more oxygen into the water, especially in areas where there is not enough oxygen due to decomposing organic matter that creates Anoxic (lacking oxygen) areas along the water. Despite the fact that neither of these remediation strategies apply to Bubbly Creek, some wild and plant life has returned to the Creek making it a popular spot for fishing and other water recreational activities. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the river area has been restored to its former glory and this was made evident during our clean-up efforts.

Upon arriving at Canal Origins Park, one is greeted with the sight of lush prairie grasses and native plants. There’s a lovely walking trail here that winds through a decade-old prairie restoration, and a first time visitor might well conclude there’s no way that this site has long been considered one of the most polluted bodies of water in the Chicago area.

Members of RU's women's basketball team help collect trash on Bubbly Creek's shoreline, 15 Sept 2016 (photo: M. Bryson)

Members of RU’s women’s basketball team help collect trash on Bubbly Creek’s shoreline, 15 Sept 2016 (photo: M. Bryson)

Venturing off the trail and getting up close to the water’s edge tells a whole different story, though. Countless needles, abandoned clothing, food wrappers, random Styrofoam pieces, and scattered items that could have been recycled are only some of the thousands of items, large and small, that litter the water and the shoreline. Even after the valiant efforts that were made by the volunteer team that worked for nearly two hours, there was still a lot of visible trash that was scattered throughout the site.

A lot of us live with the mentality that once we throw away something, it will disappear forever. Spending an afternoon picking up trash allowed me to realize that all of our trash doesn’t just disappear it’s here, washed up on the shores of Canal Origins Park.

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Trash along the shoreline of Bubbly Creek (photo: M. Viveros)

We are a throw-away society. Once something is broken, considered useless, or just plainly out-of-style, we toss it and then buy something else to replace it. We need instead to consider all of the resources that went into harvesting the raw materials to make that product, all the labor that went into manufacturing that product, all the distance that it traveled to get to you  because when we throw something out, we are not just throwing out that one product, we throw out all of the resources that went into getting that product into your hands. One vivid consequence of this throw-away mentality is the pollution we came face to face with at Bubbly Creek.

Of course, some of that responsibility can also fall on improper waste management practices, but as consumers we have the power to change that. We often forget the 3 Rs of sustainability. Everyone knows about Recycling, which is vital for salvaging raw materials for reuse whenever possible. But the other 2 Rs are important as well. Reuse whatever products you have: don’t just toss out a shirt because it’s old; use it as a rag.

And then, most crucially, Reduce: you have the power to buy and use less and to use stuff that you already have instead of buying something new. Reduction is the best way to reduce the strain on our scarce resources like water and oil and it is also the best way to keep trash from polluting our environment. As consumers and citizens, we have the power to keep our environment clean through ways that doesn’t have to include getting down and dirty by picking up trash on a Thursday afternoon. But in case you do, the Chicago Park District is always welcoming volunteers to come and help out.

viveros-m-croppedMoses Viveros is a senior SUST major at Roosevelt University and the SUST Program’s Student Associate for 2016-17. He is also serving as the assistant editor for the SUST at RU Blog this year.

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