Few people hear the word “litter” and think that they’re about to have fun. Let’s face it, picking up trash isn’t the most exciting project in the world and oftentimes it feels pointless; just wait a couple days and the gracious park visitors will drop even more trash on the ground for you to pick up next week. How is it even possible to have fun picking up litter and feel like you’re making a meaningful contribution to your public lands?

The first step to having an awesome litter project is choosing a good crew. In the four months since I’ve arrived at Grand Canyon National Park, I’ve worked with youth groups, tour companies, church groups, insurance companies, outdoor enthusiasts, and more! The people you spend your time with truly make all the difference and can turn any simple project into an awesome day.

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National Public Lands Day volunteers on a weekend trip with leaders from REI’s Outdoor Programs & Outreach
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Volunteers from AAA showing off a portion of the trash they picked up during their August trip

The second step is choosing the right focus area. Here at the Grand Canyon, we’re lucky to have an awesome view anywhere we go. Most of our litter projects focus on the Rim Trail—which, as you might’ve guessed, runs right along the rim of the canyon—and it’s hard to complain about picking up trash when you’re staring at one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

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Students from Chapman University on an alternative spring break trip in March 2016
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Employees from Pink Jeep Tours take a break to enjoy the view from Shoshone Point

The third and final step is looking at the bigger picture. When we do a litter project, we always start the morning by talking about the importance of the project. Our litter projects at Grand Canyon National Park focus on microtrash such as broken glass, bottle caps, soda can tabs, coins, etc. What many people don’t realize is that microtrash is a serious threat to the endangered California condor (Gymnogyps californianus).

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Microtrash that was removed from the digestive system of a California Condor

The California condor is the largest North American bird with a wingspan of 9.5 feet (more than twice that of the common raven, a bird you’ll definitely see if you visit the Grand Canyon), mostly black feathers with a distinct white band on their underwing, and a bald orange, pink, or reddish head that keeps them from getting too dirty while feeding on carrion (the meat from dead animals). It’s an amazing sight to see a bird that huge with its wings spread flying over the Grand Canyon, but back in the 1980s, they almost went extinct. A variety of threats, including microtrash (which the condors ingest), lead bullets for hunting (which poison the condors when they consume the remains of the hunted animals), and habitat degradation led to the decline of the California Condors and by 1982, less than two dozen birds remained. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a captive breeding program for the condors in 1983. With the help of that program, there are now over 400 living California condors. An amazing comeback for sure, but they’re not safe yet. In addition to the continued threat of lead poisoning and habitat degradation, we still see condors that have bellies full of microtrash. Microtrash is indigestible and will fill the condors’ stomachs, making them unable to digest actual food. They may die of impaction or starvation.

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An x-ray of a California Condor showing trash that it has ingested

Our volunteers who donate their time to pick up bottles, food wrappers, cigarette butts, bottle caps, and so many other items aren’t just here to keep the park clean. By cleaning up the microtrash, volunteers are removing these items from the ecosystem, ensuring that they won’t end up in the bellies of our California condors and other wildlife. Our volunteers are protecting and preserving this ecosystem and they are contributing to the California condor’s recovery from the brink of extinction. Who knew picking up that bottle cap you see on the ground could be so impactful?

And now we’re at the point where I propose a challenge: whether you’re living in a fairly isolated area such as the Grand Canyon or you’re in the middle of a big city, you’re bound to see some litter wherever you go. When you see that soda can or that empty chip bag on the sidewalk, don’t just walk past. Pick it up and dispose of it properly. If you pick up just one piece of trash today, you’re making a difference. And tomorrow, challenge yourself to do even more. With that simple action, the trash that you pick up won’t end up in the bellies of your local wildlife, and the lives of these animals could be saved!

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#122, a 21-year-old male California Condor in Arizona