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. Check out how much trash we picked up on Chicago River Day 2019.

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.


Volunteer to help us #LosetheLitter:

You can also download separate sections from the Toolkit:


Please consider joining the number of individuals, businesses, and community groups throughout the watersed who are engaged in river stewardship. Our River Action Day Booklet has more information on how to set up a corporate volunteer day to help the river #LosetheLitter. 

This successful project brings together an ever-growing group of communities along the river for education and volunteering. Here are a few of the nearly 35 groups we've worked with so far. We look forward to growing our partnerships.

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. 

We are so inspired by the many groups and individuals who are joining the effort 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 interested in doing a clean up? 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. Starting with a pilot campaign on the North Shore Channel, it has expanded throughout the watershed. The project expansion resulted in a name change to Litter Free Chicago River. Check out the press release.