A bag of trash, an old life jacket, a 1 Mississippi brochure, and the Great River Road. (Photo: T. Aljets)

Every time I’ve thrown my laptop in my backpack and set off for the Mississippi sunset to put a couple words down,

I found more than I could carry. Luckily, I found some long straps 5 minutes earlier–It sort of worked. (Photo: T. Aljets)

I instead end up with the same blank screen and a green, Missouri Stream Teams bag full of mostly Styrofoam, jugs, broken glass, and the occasional propane tank.  At times, this pattern of distractions has been a curse, especially when I lose track of time, forcing me to rush to the office before the doors lock at 7 P.M.  While I realize I will never be able to stop all of the trash from flowing downstream, the stuff I can gather will never reach the Gulf of Mexico.

I blame my mom for instilling this sense of duty in me.  Her catch phrase has always been, “Do it for the dolphins!”  Since my family began camping, picking up litter has been a fixture in my life.  Cleanup was far from a hobby for me in my early years.  In fact, I hated it at first, because I associated it with the end of our trips. (I was never ready to leave.)  I did not understand why we had to pick up after these “litterbugs” that left so much garbage in the first place.  However, my mom made it relevant, because she knew I loved critters, especially frogs and turtles.

Peanut the Turtle is a worldwide symbol of why we clean our waterways. (Photo: Missouri Dept. of Conservation)

As I’ve gotten older, picking up litter has evolved into a hobby.  My passion has grown, along with the list of reasons I choose to help out; here are a few examples:

  • Therapy: Alone or in a group, walking these beautiful, riparian landscapes (areas that include vegetation,

    Here is Kristen Schulte, Education Coordinator for Missouri River Relief, and her beloved pooch, who loves to help clean rivers! (Photo: T. Aljets)

    habitats, or ecosystems associated with bodies of water) has a relieving effect of its own, but when collecting river trash, you receive the gratification from beautifying them, as well.  Since trash pickup is simple, you get plenty of time to think things over.

  • Fitness: It’s like a free gym! Regardless of the intensity, a cleanup always feels like a workout—a dynamic one, too!  You carry a progressively heavier bag of trash while also engaging a myriad of muscles as you walk, lean over logs, climb banks, and sometimes even crawl through thorns to get to the more challenging items.  (Remember to wear gloves, close-toed shoes, and long pants—more safety tips)

    Missouri River Relief volunteers get a work out while unloading trash boats after a huge Missouri River cleanup. (Photo: T. Aljets)

  • Neat finds: We have found interesting trash, like: typewriters, waverunner hulls, boats, carburetors, Sega controllers, antique light bulbs, messages in bottles, duck decoys, and anything else imaginable. (I found a whiffle ball and bat washed up within 3 ft. of each other once!)

    River Citizen, Robin Walker stands by a waverunner hull and what would become a stack of 31 tires from this group of only five volunteers! (Photo: T. Aljets)

  • Setting an example: When people see volunteers or when trash has been removed from an area, people are

    My portrayal of the danger this net we recovered posed to fish, birds, and other wildlife. (Photo: Cody Presny)

    far less likely to throw out trash—“Monkey see, monkey do!”

  • Protecting critters: Nearly everyone loves the wildlife that lives along the river and further downstream in the ocean—as my mom says, “Do it for the dolphins!”
  • Teamwork/healthy competition: No matter who picks up the most trash, we all are striving to make the river a better place. If you want to compete with your friends, go for it, but in the end, everyone wins!  From children to elders, everyone is working on the same team.
  • Preserving aesthetic beauty: Everyone enjoys the beauty of pristine Mississippi islands, the sandy beaches of the Gulf, the Louisiana cypress swamps, and other landmarks—Leave No Trace!  (I think this swan prefers cleaner lakes.)
  • Clean drinking water: Over 16 million people drink water from the Mississippi River. Cleanups not only help water quality directly, but also attract public attention to other issues like litter’s sneaky travel companion, agricultural pollution.  Our September newsletter, “From Fields to Rivers to Faucets” and this video from Into the Outdoors can both provide useful information about ag pollution.

    Ag pollution affects the water quality of the entire Mississippi River. IL and IA are the biggest contributors. (Infographic: 1 Mississippi team)

Whatever your personal list of reasons to help out are, remember not to get overwhelmed by the trash you cannot get.  Instead, focus on what you’re able to accomplish, and have a great time; you will be back soon enough.  Whether it is a Coke bottle or a boatload of tires, you are doing your part to help everyone downstream.

River Citizen, Chris Ragsdale, Steve Schnaar of Missouri River Relief, and another helper filled this boat with tires! (Photo: T. Aljets)

While each visit to the river is not always good for blog timelines, it will always yield an enriching experience as dynamic as the river, itself.  Sometimes, a marvelous, watercolor sunset over a docile, glassy Mississippi can put the mind at ease.  Other times, an overcast sky complemented with the winds, swirling currents and muddy whitecaps can be a reminder of why the river deserves our respect.  Picking up a little bit of trash when we visit eases the burden we humans place on the river.  For many people, especially River Citizens, it does even more.

Thanks for reading, River Citizens! See You On The River!

Tanner Aljets
1 Mississippi Illinois/Missouri Outreach Assistant

Do you want to get involved with group cleanups like Confluence Trash Bash?  Watch the 1 Mississippi events calendar or email il1mississippi@bluestemcommunications.org to be added to the St. Louis volunteer team or for opportunities near you.  1 Mississippi is connected to over 50 organizations from Minnesota to Louisiana dedicated to protecting our rivers; many of them would love to help organize cleanups to engage River Citizens as volunteers.

Confluence Trash Bash volunteers hauling litter  in by the ton! (St. Louis Post Dispatch photo)


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