Cleaner Landscapes for the Economy, Agriculture, & Nature
Supporting the Tennessee CLEAN Act: Let’s get plastics out of the Tennessee River 

Supporting the Tennessee CLEAN Act: Let’s get plastics out of the Tennessee River 

Supporting the Tennessee CLEAN Act: Let’s get plastics out of the Tennessee River 

Opinion article by Alexandra DeMarco of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Alexandra DeMarco is a student at the University of Tennessee studying journalism, French and environmental studies. During the 2020-2021 school year, she worked as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Beacon.

The glorious Tennessee River runs through the heart of many of the Scruffy City’s most notable assets, yet nefarious pollutants are threatening its safety and our state’s quality of life.

This popular body of water snakes past Neyland Stadium, greeting thousands of football fans each autumn with its sparkling waves. It’s a key attraction in Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness infrastructure, the city’s system of outdoor activities near downtown. 

The river is lined with docks, inviting in boats as small as kayaks and large as the illustrious Tennessee Riverboat.

And these entities represent only the human niches of the Tennessee River; countless other birds, fish, mussels and plants also thrive in the biodiverse river.

For all the ecosystem offers, one might hope it boasts an image of environmental harmony. But the roaring body of water—ferocious and glowing on the surface—has been poisoned. A pack of barely visible, vicious predators have invaded its thrashing waters: microplastics. 

Microplastics are pieces of small plastic debris less than five millimeters in length—and, according to an experiment by Professor Andreas Fath, the Tennessee River has one of the highest rates of plastic pollution for a river in the world. The pollutants are derived from a variety of sources including larger pieces of plastic that break down, cosmetic microbeads and run off.

Environmental factors like sun rays or waves cause plastic litter to break down into microplastics, and single-use plastics are some of the most common floating culprits.

Small aquatic organisms may become entangled in plastics, while others may mistake microplastics for food. Research conducted on marine animals indicates that consuming microplastics could pose a deadly, toxic threat to wildlife

Although further research is needed to determine how these pollutants may affect humans, it’s possible that they cause similar toxic effects when ingested.

While microplastics originate from many different sources, it is essential to target them from as many origin points as possible—and litter is a serious problem. Reducing the overall litter in Tennessee and within watersheds will reduce the number of large plastic pieces in waterways and ultimately decrease microplastic creation.

It is time for legislation that targets litter in Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation has an idea.

The Federation’s Tennessee CLEAN is working to make this a tangible reality by creating legislation that would deter littering and encourage Tennesseeans to recycle 85% of certain plastic, glass and aluminum containers; significantly reduce the presence of single-use plastic bags; and create a statewide program to comprehensively address and reduce litter. 

CLEAN is a movement for all Tennesseeans and was also created to help reduce the cost litter creates for local farmers, businesses and governments.

For the sake of future generations of people and wildlife, it is essential that Tennesseans support legislation that advocates for cleaner waterways in our state. To learn more about CLEAN and advocate for the bill, visit