Grassroots River Cleanup Yields 162 Tons in 3 Hours

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Dalpra said that once people participate in an annual Potomac cleanup and see the amount of Styrofoam cups and other trash littering the river, "their minds change quickly."

Dalpra should know. He has volunteered with the Alice Ferguson Foundation's Potomac cleanup for 14 out of its 16 years.

As Dalpra sees it, the problem of water pollution is rooted in personal behavior. And that, Dalpra says, can be hard to change.

"It's a real battle, as is any battle to get people to change their daily behaviors," Dalpra said. "Whether it's littering, smoking, eating, drinking—all these things are tough [to change.]"

Small changes in behavior, however, can have large consequences. Alice Ferguson Foundation staff calculated that at least 30 percent of the trash collected during the Potomac cleanup this year was plastic bottles that could have been recycled.

The trash was not confined to soda bottles, however. "We had enough material this year to furnish several houses with appliances," Bowen said. Air conditioners, blenders, humidifiers, refrigerators, and hot-water tanks were among some of the bigger items found.

Car parts were also abundant. "I'm talking everything from the axles to the radiators to the water pumps to the steering wheels," Bowen said. Volunteers also found more than a thousand tires, which litterbugs often dump to avoid disposal fees.

Trash Free?

Bowen says annual cleanup efforts are only part of the solution needed for the Potomac. The river "is not trash free by any stretch of the imagination after our cleanup," she said. "We … get rid of some of the volume, but it's not clean."

This year, for example, Mississippi volunteer Chad Pregracke brought a barge, several smaller boats, and a work crew to collect trash along the Potomac after last month's annual cleanup day.

In three weeks the garbage-skimming barge operator and his fellow volunteers collected 75 tons of trash along one small section of the river around Washington, D.C. In some smaller coves, the volunteers discovered trash from storm drainage piled to a depth of three feet (one meter).

To meet its goal of a trash-free river, the Alice Ferguson Foundation plans to convene a trash summit later this fall, Bowen said. There she hopes to address how communities can coordinate their efforts to tackle what often seems to be an overwhelming problem.

A case in point: One thousand and twenty-two tons—or more than 2 million pounds (907,000 kilograms)—of trash have been removed by Alice Ferguson Foundation cleanup volunteers in the past 16 years.

Group Effort

Fortunately, the magnitude of the issue does not seem to discourage those who support the foundation's efforts. Participants in the annual cleanup come from a wide variety of community partners as well as corporate sponsors and government agencies. "It's the most eclectic mix of organizations," Bowen said.

Paul Hagen, a Washington-area lawyer and cleanup site leader, sees all ages of volunteers, from senior citizens to babies in backpacks, joining the effort.

Hagen said he encourages people to enjoy the recreational opportunities the river provides—opportunities he sees as ways to raise awareness. "I think having the community take advantage of the Potomac is the best way to get people to think about what [they] need to do to make sure that it stays in good shape."

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