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Planning a River Cleanup: A Start-to-Finish Guide to Cleaning Up Your Local Waterway 

Individual people are responsible for creating the trash that clogs our waterways, and it’s often up to individual people to clean that trash up. Hosting a river cleanup project in your area is a great way to not only improve the health of your local waterway, but to form new friendships with like-minded people. 

Choose a topic below to get expert advice from seasoned river cleanup organizations on hosting the most effective project possible. 

Selecting Location and Timing

The first step in planning a river cleanup project is choosing a location. While this may seem straightforward, there are many factors to evaluate before making a final call.

What the Experts Say:

Know the state of your stream:

Know the accessibility:

Pick a good season:

Cumberland River Compact

Putting It All Together:

Choose a cleanup location with the following characteristics:

If your cleanup location doesn’t have nearby parking, ask a local business or place of worship if volunteers can park in their lots during the cleanup. Tell volunteers to meet at the parking area to carpool to the cleanup site. 

Image Source: Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

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Finding Volunteers

Your proposed river cleanup won’t get far without a group of dedicated volunteers to lend a hand. While there are likely many people in your community who would be happy to contribute to a local river cleanup, the trick is figuring out how to get the word out to those people.

What the Experts Say:

There are several good ways to find volunteers:

Friends of the Mississippi River

Putting It All Together:

Use the following methods to attract volunteers to your waterway cleanup:

Inform:

Ask: 

Create:

Image Source: Missouri River Relief

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Making Your Volunteer Cleanup Accessible

Once you’ve found the right avenues to get the word out to volunteers, it’s important to make sure that the community cleanup project you’ve planned is one that will be appealing—and accessible—to as many community members as possible.

What the Experts Say:

Get organized, published and ready for answering questions from prospective volunteers EARLY! 1-2 months of outreach time is crucial for building support. Last-minute events are incredibly difficult to fill.

Friends of the Mississippi River
 

Two hours is typically a good length for a cleanup – most volunteers will tire around this point. If you’re working with kids, on hot days, etc. you might want to cut it to 90 minutes.

Cumberland River Compact
 

It’s always helpful to have some hand sanitizer and/or baby wipes on site if there isn’t a hand washing station/bathroom available. We also try to bring granola bars or bananas as snacks if there isn’t other food provided. Finally, having a bucket or two on hand is great for sharp items.

American Rivers
 

It's helpful to have different people with autonomy over different aspects of the event. For example, for our cleanups we ask one person to be the Cleanup Boss, another to be the Publicity Boss etc. As long as everyone communicates with each other, it takes the pressure off of one individual to cover all the details. Some people prefer "Hero" or "Guru" to "Boss" to discourage people from being bossy!

Missouri River Relief

Putting It All Together:

Use the following methods to make your cleanup appealing to potential volunteers:

Image Source: Friends of the Mississippi River

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Estimating Materials for Your Cleanup

Eager volunteers are the most important element of a successful waterway cleanup, but they’re not the only piece of the puzzle. You’ll need to make sure those volunteers are armed with the right quantities of the right materials to get the job done efficiently and, most importantly, safely. 

What the Experts Say:

Make sure to have the following items on hand for your river cleanup:

Equipment:

Other Items:

Friends of the Mississippi River
 

From our data, the average number of volunteers per site is 27. I’d recommend at least two or three bags per person; so anywhere between 50 and 80 bags per cleanup. If it’s a very dirty site or a lot of volunteers are expected, up those numbers to 200-300.

American Rivers’ National River Cleanup program provides trash bags to cleanups of all sizes for free. All organizers need to do is register with National River Cleanup (which should take under five minutes)!
 
As for gloves, bringing 50 pairs for a regular cleanup should be fine. Alternatively, just have volunteers wear medical or latex gloves – they are cheaper and usually sturdy enough for common trash.

American Rivers
 

My advice is to reach out to organizations that can provide supplies and haul away all the debris the day of the cleanup. Otherwise, things can become cumbersome. 

Bayshore Regional Watershed Council
 

BD Hint: Request a free dumpster.
Learn more today.

Putting It All Together:

Use the following methods to acquire materials:

Once any donations have come in, you can ask volunteers for help in acquiring any supplies that are still needed. However, you should make it clear that no one is obligated to provide supplies and no one will be turned away for being unable to contribute.

Image Source: Friends of the Mississippi River

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Getting Permission for Your River Cleanup

It’s important that you have any necessary permission in writing before cleanup day or you could find your project stalled before it even starts. It may be possible to plan your waterway cleanup to take place only on public land, such as within a local park. However, if the trashiest areas of your local river are found on land owned by the city or by private citizens, you’ll need permission to clean there.

What the Experts Say:

Based on the specifics of your cleanup, obtaining permission can take different forms. Here are a few thoughts:

Cleaning Up By Boat: 
Chances are this comes from a local sheriff’s department, which operate at the county level in most states.

Permission could also come from the local city or township, or even a state natural resource department or federal agency. 

You may need to ask around to figure out the correct governing body to ask, but they will likely grant permission with little to no concern.

Cleaning Up on Land: 
It can be tricky figuring out the owners of private land, finding them and asking for permission. Even more difficult is gaining permission if you’re working with many private individual landowners across property lines. 

If it’s a land holding by a large company, they also can be difficult to gain access from, due largely to liability issues. Government-owned properties tend to be easier, but figuring out the property owner can take some work. 

Friends of the Mississippi River

Putting It All Together:

Use the following methods to get permission for your cleanup:

Even if your cleanup is taking place entirely on public property, it’s a good idea to ask the city for a letter of support. This will legitimize your cleanup for anyone who may question what you’re doing. 

Image Source: Missouri River Relief

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Separating Recyclables

Once your river cleanup is complete, you’ll have played a major role in improving your community’s environmental health. But why not go one step farther? You can make an even bigger impact by separating the recyclables from the rest of the litter you collected to ensure they don’t end up in a landfill. 

What the Experts Say:

The number one thing about recycling is to check with your local recycling center before the cleanup because not all take the same materials. For instance, many will not take glass.  

Also ask them about other specifics such as what plastic numbers they take or if lids are acceptable. Also be sure to ask if the recyclables need to be separated or can be co-mingled.

If groups choose to recycle as they pick up, we suggest giving volunteers two bags OR buddying up and each taking a bag—a clear one for recycling, and a black (or other color) one for all other garbage. 
 
If you decide to separate recyclables post-cleanup, I’d suggest getting a sample to show volunteers what materials are accepted, and the acceptable dirt and/or liquid level, etc.

Be sure volunteers do NOT open any containers with liquids in them to dump out. Just because it’s a Mountain Dew bottle and it looks like Mountain Dew, doesn’t mean it is Mountain Dew. Also, many toxic chemicals are clear and do not have an odor. They may be mistaken for water.

Living Lands and Waters
 

Tires are one of the most recyclable large objects commonly found in streams, so consider recycling tires through Bridgestone’s “Tires 4Ward” program

Cumberland River Compact

Putting It All Together:

Choose to separate recycling as you work if any of the following circumstances apply:

Choose to separate recycling post-cleanup if any of the following circumstances apply:

Image Source: NY/NJ Baykeeper

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Planning the Post-Cleanup…Cleanup

The biggest mistake you can make when planning a river cleanup project is forgetting to have a plan in place for getting rid of all the trash you remove from your waterway. This step is particularly important because you don’t want to neutralize all the environmental good you did by failing to ensure that the trash is properly handled. 

What the Experts Say:

Organize trash pickup beforehand – some cities may work with you to come collect the trash directly, or you may want to rent a dumpster.

Make a note of large, difficult to move items (appliances, car parts, etc.) and let local watershed groups know in case they’re able to arrange future removal.

Cumberland River Compact
 

A tip I would offer is to be sure to contact your town's department of public works to schedule trash pickup prior to the cleanup. 

Bayshore Regional Watershed Council
 

If you want to record how much was cleaned up, we usually estimate 15 pounds per bag for the trash we pick up.

Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation
 

It’s also fun to keep a tab of the strangest items found at a cleanup to share with the community.

NY-NJ Baykeeper

Putting It All Together:

Use the following methods to get rid of trash post-cleanup:

BD Hint: Learn about our 

Dumpster Donation Program.

Image Source: Missouri River Relief

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Are You River Cleanup-Ready?

With these tips, you should be well on your way to planning a river cleanup that will not only leave your community with a healthier waterway but will hopefully inspire continuing cleanup efforts. 

If you’re looking for additional resources or more ways to get involved with river protection, please visit the wonderful organizations that helped to make this guide possible:

American Rivers
Living Lands & Waters
NY/NJ Baykeeper
Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation
Friends of the Mississippi River
Missouri River Relief
Cumberland River Compact
Bayshore Regional Watershed Council