Mississippi River mayors, tribal leaders sign pledge to prevent plastic pollution
Mayors from Minnesota to Louisiana converged in Bemidji last week for the annual meeting of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative to announce a new project aimed at preventing plastic pollution.
BEMIDJI — Preventing plastic pollution in the Mighty Mississippi is the focus of a first-of-its-kind partnership between mayors and tribal leaders.
Leaders of cities throughout the Mississippi River Basin and tribal leaders from Northern Minnesota gathered Sept. 12-14 in Bemidji — the first city on the river — to announce a memorandum of common purpose.
Plastic pollution is a growing problem in a disposable society, with plastic marine debris converging in various regions of the North Pacific into what’s often called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
A report by the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative used citizen scientists to track debris alongside the Mississippi and determined 40% of the garbage in the Gulf of Mexico can be traced to the river.
“Since 20 million people throughout 50 cities are drinking the surface water of the Mississippi, it is vital we act in a coordinated and systemic fashion to address floatable waste,” said Jim Strickland, mayor of Memphis, Tennessee. “Our freshwater economy on the Mississippi River generates over $450 million in annual revenue. We are committed to pursuing the necessary actions and we are taking a stand against plastic pollution.”
At a Sept. 12 welcoming ceremony on the Red Lake Nation, tribal leaders of Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth signed the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative’s pledge to leverage this report to gain funding. The funding would be directed toward preventing and reducing plastic pollution in the unique partnership.
“To have an agreement signed by Indigenous nations and mayors along the Mississippi River, nothing like that has ever been done before,” said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the initiative.
At the initiative’s meeting in St. Louis, Mo., last year, mayors discussed ways to partner with Indigenous nations towards a common purpose of protecting water.
"We’re more of the mindset that we are coming along with them because they have been taking care of this ecological phenomenon that we call the Mississippi River for millennia, and they frankly have been doing a much better job."Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative
“We sit down with equal leverage and equal presence to design this together,” Wellenkamp said. “We’re more of the mindset that we are coming along with them because they have been taking care of this ecological phenomenon that we call the Mississippi River for millennia, and they frankly have been doing a much better job.”
Red Lake Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr. challenged mayors at the Sept. 13 press conference to not stop at the plastic pollution threat, but also to address petrochemicals.
“These oil companies discharge our precious water for our (wild) rice to build these pipelines,” Seki said.
"We believe that with local actions in cities and towns, with regional work along your river corridor and with support from all stakeholders, including and especially the First Nations around the world like here in the headwaters of the Mississippi River.... we have an opportunity to end plastic pollution."Rafael Peralta, North American director for the United Nations
Wellenkamp said he hopes expanding the focus will bring more tribes farther downstream the Mississippi on board with the pledge.
“He’s immediately bringing to the table concerns that we can work together on and that’s exactly what we’re hoping for, is to learn what’s the value to the tribes? How can our mayors help them?” Wellenkamp said.
The bipartisan jobs and infrastructure bills passed on the federal level have grant dollars available for projects like this, according to Wellenkamp, and the Debris Tracker app used by citizen scientists to track floatable debris on the Mississippi riverbanks from Minnesota to Louisiana will continue to be valuable for securing grant dollars. A total of 80 million to 89 million pieces of litter has been tracked so far, including information on the type of litter and even brand.
“What we have right now is a snapshot of waste profiles,” Wallenkamp said. “Where it is and the geography of it changes over time, so we’ll actually need folks to continue to put in this data and use the app ... and hopefully we’ll start to see reductions as we deploy this infrastructure and put it to work on the ground.”
Wallenkamp said manufacturers of plastic waste also have an opportunity to come to the table to work with mayors and tribes on ways to minimize impact. The study found of the 341 litter items where brands could be identified, the top five brands were PepsiCo Inc., Mars Inc., the Coca-Cola Company, AB InBev, and Mondelez International Inc.
“Beyond this bipartisan infrastructure money and inflation reduction money, we’d like to put the brands to work — not as a stick but as a carrot to bring the producers to the table... to minimize that impact.”
This new partnership between cities, tribes and eventually brands has the potential impact to set a new standard for addressing big-picture issues like plastic waste around the world, according to Rafael Peralta, North American director for the United Nations.
“We believe that with local actions in cities and towns, with regional work along your river corridor and with support from all stakeholders, including and especially the First Nations around the world like here in the headwaters of the Mississippi River.... we have an opportunity to end plastic pollution,” Peralta said.