What began as the annual stream cleanup day in St. Peters, Mo., resulted in a surprising discovery and a very visual environmental lesson for a group from Grace United Church of Christ. After a few hours of picking up paper, bottles, plastic bags and other typical trash along the banks and waterways of the Meramec River, the church crew came across debris it didn't expect to find – a 1950s-era pickup truck, surprisingly intact after being submerged underwater and exposed to the elements for what could be 60 years or more.
"We were almost done with the cleanup when we looked down and said, 'What is that? It looks like a truck!'" said Heather Gordon, treasurer and public relations coordinator at Grace UCC who helped organize the trash pickup as part of the church's Mission 4/1 Earth campaign. "We couldn't believe what it was and have no idea how it got there, but we're really interested in trying to figure it out."
One of the first things Gordon noticed was how the truck has quite literally become a part of the environment over the years. It has broken into two pieces, and while some of the truck can be seen above the water, the rest of it is tightly embedded into the riverbank. Trees as old as 20 or 30 years have grown up around it, on top of it and even through it. Old nests have been left inside by wildlife like opossums and raccoons, and tadpoles swim its water-filled nooks and crannies. The only part of the vehicle they could access was a door, dripping with rust, which the group detached from the truck to prevent it from further polluting the water. But other than some other rusty patches, the truck was otherwise intact, a fact that surprised Gordon and particularly surprised the children in the group.
"People say it takes things forever to biodegrade, but even I didn't realize it took that long," she said. "There is a possibility that the truck has been there for 50 or 60 years and it still looks like a truck."
The discovery prompted the youth to ask questions about some of the other trash they found that day – for example, how long does it take a plastic bag to biodegrade? How long does it take for paper? Gordon said this inspired the congregation to plan an educational lesson for an upcoming worship service about the lifecycles of items people throw away every day.
"I don't think the kids would have asked these questions if they hadn't seen the truck," said Gordon.
The group reported the finding of the truck to city leaders, who were just as surprised by the discovery. They'll send a team to investigate the area, but believe that removing the truck may do more harm than good, given how intertwined it is with the ecosystem. While the rust from the vehicle could eventually create some toxicity problems, the level of disruption caused by removing it could create even more, so the city will need to weigh the options to figure out the best solution, Gordon said. So it seems the truck may just stay right where it is, as a permanent, yet unlikely, part of the natural environment that definitely got some people thinking about what happens to things after they throw them away.
"This was an eye-opening experience about what happens to things in landfills," Gordon said. "Look, this thing doesn't disintegrate – it's still there. We were sure to tell the kids that, and I think it had a big impact on them."
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