For years the Red Cedar River’s reputation as a polluted river discouraged recreation and river stewardship among Michigan State University students and fans and this view has persisted despite the great progress we have made in restoring the river’s water quality. Unfortunately this negative perception fuels further abuse, “it’s already full of litter, what does another empty bottle hurt?”
This mindset was on display in autumn of 2016, when two paddlers came across hundreds of bottles and many bags of trash in the river near campus. In response, local environmental groups, businesses, and municipalities began to meet to address the litter problem, focusing on changing the river’s reputation through an initiative called “Red Cedar Awareness.”
Composed of regional environmental groups, the City of East Lansing and Michigan State University the group determined that if residents and visitors knew how far the river had come from it’s polluted past, they may come to respect the Red Cedar as the recreational and environmental resource that it truly is and determine its worthy of protection.
To do this, a canvasing event was planned during a Spartan football game. The high foot traffic of residents and visitors provided a platform to discuss the current state of the river and the individual actions citizens can take to improve water quality on campus and elsewhere. Signs were posted along the river-side footpaths that offered passersby’s tips on limiting their impact on stormwater runoff. Volunteers also sparked conversations with the public, where in exchange for signing a river stewardship pledge, signatories received either a green and white “Pollution Isn’t Pretty” bracelet or a Red Cedar Awareness magnet that listed household actions they could take to improve water quality. The “take home” half of the pledge included more tips, as well as a copy of the Spartan fight song.
Many interested citizens also signed up to receive newsletters from the individual Red Cedar Awareness organizations and will now be in the loop on future projects. After successfully reaching hundreds of campus residents and visitors, the group hopes to pass the reigns on to a student organization. The perception problem is rooted in campus life, and students may be most effective in changing it.