PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — From his floating home on the Multnomah Channel, Hanns Haefker can watch the water that flows through the channel between Scappoose and the banks of Sauvie Island.
But the scenic views are often interrupted by trash that floats through the river, including large chunks of polystyrene.
Polystyrene is a synthetic polymer, most commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam.
Under docks and floating homes, expanded polystyrene foam is used to assist floatation. But over time, the polystyrene can come dislodged, either in small pieces or heavy, water-logged “barrels.”
“When I see these big barrels floating down the river, I just say to myself, ‘Something’s got to be done,'” Haefker said.
For years, Haefker has gone out onto the channel in his canoe or walked the shore to pull in polystyrene barrels and other trash. He recently switched to a small work barge, because the canoe’s high rim made it difficult to pull in heavy pieces of polystyrene.
Up until the 1990s, expanded polystyrene or whitebead foam could be placed under docks or floating homes without being wrapped in another material. The foam now has to be encapsulated, which makes the flotation aid last longer and means that it’s less likely to crumble into tiny pieces.
Even so, not all the materials are equally effective. Some of the polystyrene barrels that Haefker has collected are wrapped in plastic, but the plastic has visibly deteriorated. Others are wrapped in a rigid plastic that better withstands time and the elements, keeping the foam intact. When the foam crumbles, the tiny pieces can be mistaken for food by marine life.
Haefker said there are logs in front of his home where he frequently sees tiny pieces of foam collect.
In addition to the foam, the river has been littered with plastic bottles, flip-flops that fly off a boat or dock, Styrofoam bait containers, plastic barrels and plastic bags.
Haefker has been disposing of the heavy foam at the Columbia County Transfer Station.
At first, the dump fees were a hefty price for him to pay, especially considering the foam wasn’t from Haefker’s property. He was also having to load up the debris into a truck and haul it to the transfer station himself.
Haefker said he explained his situation to Kathleen Boutin-Pasterz, the county’s solid waste coordinator, and she was able to make him a volunteer and waive the fees.
Boutin-Pasterz said the collections show an “enormous contribution Hanns is providing for the community and health of the river’s ecosystem.”
Until last fall, Haefker would collect polystyrene barrels and other debris around his home until he amassed a truckload. Between April 2019 and October 2020, Haefker brought 10 loads to the transfer station, totaling a whopping 2.5 tons, according to Boutin-Pasterz.
Thankfully for Haefker, the county started sending the DumpStoppers work crew to collect the heavy loads Haefker collected on the shore as of last November. In the past four months, the crew has hauled away four trailer loads totaling approximately 1,000 pounds, Boutin-Pasterz said.
At 53 years old, Haefker has spent most of his life living on the channel, having been raised there and returning later in adulthood.
“This is where I grew up, so I can’t stand seeing garbage in the river,” Haefker said.
The Columbia County Board of Commissioners sent Haefker a certificate of appreciation earlier this year, thanking him for his contributions.
Haefker’s collections have amounted to thousands of pounds “that he’s plucked out of the river, just doing a good deed for all of us,” Commissioner Henry Heimuller said.
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