Litter Free Chicago River

What is litter?
Litter is the most visible sign of pollution. It is anything that is left where it is not meant to be. Litter is more than just an eyesore, it contaminates drinking water, disrupts recreation, ruins habitat, and threatens the lives of all people, wildlife, and communities who depend on clean water. 

How does litter impact our environment?
The issue of litter in our rivers is important. Litter can kill aquatic life and decrease oxygen levels when it decays in water. The top five items typically found in rivers are cigarette butts, plastic bottles and caps, food packaging, plastic bags, and aluminum cans as well as the hard to see but increasingly-present microplastics which come from larger plastic items when they break down. The tiniest pieces of trash are often being eaten by wildlife, disrupting their digestive systems. If you’re a fish in the Chicago River, there’s a nine in 10 chance you’ve got plastic in your system.

How bad is the litter problem in the Chicago River System?
The Chicago River is cleaner than it has been in generations. Despite that fact, there is still an inordinate amount of garbage in the river. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and City of Chicago have skimmer boats. MWRD removed 3,095 cubic yards of debris  in 2018, but it's not enough. With rainfall, the amount of litter flushed into the river increases as part of the overflow in the sewer system.  

At Friends, we want to protect the river so with support from Mars Wrigley Foundation and in partnership with REI, Shedd Aquarium, Waste Management, and Loyola University’s Dr. Tim Hoellein, we launched a new campaign to make the Chicago River Litter Free. It’s ambitious, yes, but we need to get it done. Together, we are studying the sources of our aquatic pollution and working to clean it up, right in your backyard.

Friends would like to work with you and it’s easy.

~We can lead a clean-up on your site, provide the equipment, and teach you how to eventually run your own clean-upday. It’s a great way to get friends, family, colleagues out to beautify the river.

~Check out our Canoes and Cleanups held monthly at REI’s newest location on Goose Island. 

~Go hotspotting with us, which means locating areas in the river where debris collects and share your photos. 


The Litter Free Chicago River Toolkit
To share what we've learned and to assist you in leading your own volunteer work days, we've developed a litter free toolkit that guides people who want to organize clean up events in their communities. It covers everything from how to attract volunteers to how to handle trash to developing press materials. It even includes a sample liability waiver for organizers to use. 

Download the Litter Free Chicago River Toolkit.

You can also download separate sections from the Toolkit:

Please consider joining the number of individuals, businesses, and community groups along the North Branch all the way up the North Shore Channel who are engaged in river stewardship. 

To date this successful project has brought together an ever-growing group of communities along the North Shore Channel for education and volunteerism. Here just a few of the nearly 35 groups we've worked with. We look forward to growing our number of partners along the North Branch Industrial Corridor.

Canal Shores Golf Course - A 100 year public golf course is leading the way in thoughtful habitat restoration. Check out their new Master Plan and join in their monthly volunteer days.

Evanston Habitat and the City of Evanston - The City of Evanston is working to restore, care and improve the natural habitat along the North Shore Channel and to enhance the channel's value as a green corridor.

Northside College Prep - Coinciding with Friends' CRSN kickoff meeting with teachers, Friends' lead a litter pickup and brush cutting work morning. Northside continues to support a Litter Free NSC by hosting a site during Chicago River Day. 

Since starting this initiative, we've been so inspired by the many groups and individuals who have reached out to tackle litter. Check out the #LosetheLitter and #LitterFreeChicagoRiver hashtags on social media to see Friends and partners in action, working to make the river and its river-edge communities litter-free.

Do you have a group along the North Branch and North Shore Channel interested in doing a clean up? 
Please contact Annette Anderson at (312) 939-0490,  ext. 14.


Friends, with the generous support of the Mars Wrigley Foundation, is tackling litter one stretch of river at a time and started a pilot campaign called Litter Free North Shore Channel. It has since then expanded by adding a seven-mile stretch of the North Branch. The project expansion resulted in a name change to Litter Free Chicago River. Check out the press release.