By Alyssa Thomas
Going in, we had BIG goals—to get tons of volunteers and literal TONS of trash. With a total of 343 volunteers and crew who managed to pick up 23.6 tons of trash! What defines this trash tonnage? We picked up anything that was not natural or would be harmful as it starts to deteriorate into the environment. Plastic, Styrofoam, tires and scrap metal are at the top of our list. To the best of our abilities and capacity, we would grab it no matter how big or small! When it comes to our bag count, the bags generally consisted of smaller plastic, Styrofoam or personal items. Our bag count totaled to 847 bags!
Styrofoam is our nemesis. I personally despise this more than regular plastic since they tend to crumble when disturbed in any way. It’s common for us to find large chunks of foam, commonly used for insulation or floatation for docks. They’re used for packaging too, and it's easy to spot Styrofoam floating in the river. We would occasionally mistake the naturally occurring foam on the river for Styrofoam. Our bag count consists of plenty of Styrofoam, but we did find 27 large chunks of Styrofoam.
Nature finds its way!
“I found a tire!” could often be heard from a volunteer or crew member while cleaning up an area along the bank. It was embarrassingly exciting to find a tire, unless you were 150 yards from the bank and have to carry it all the way back! Though heavy, we would suck it up and roll or carry it to the boat. We collected a combination of 382 tires, weighing at 5.49 tons!
Steve Olson relaxing against a tire during a trash haul.
Our first tire experience was under Highway 435 near Kansas City where one of our crew members had found a dump right before the Kansas City Cleanup. After the cleanup, we made our way via boat and trucks to pick up these tires. Interestingly, all of these tires were painted and cut to take the form of flowers! This haul was about 200 tires! Some were also screwed together to take the shape of chairs. It was a great feeling when we finished hauling them, but the job doesn’t end there. After picking up all these tires, the crew has to bring it to a tire recycling center. You should’ve seen the employee’s faces at ABC Tire when we brought them flower shaped tires!
The next memorable tire experience was during the Miami cleanup on September 18th. We noticed a huge tractor tire sticking out of the bank, just upstream of the ramp. We thought it wasn’t really obtainable, but since it was a decently tidy stretch of the river, a couple of our crew members decided that they wanted a shot at it. They were successful! We estimated that this tire weighed about 600lbs! Shout out to Elke Boyd and Steve Olson for digging it out!
Later we did the math and realized that tire bumped us over 2 million pounds of trash that Missouri River Relief collected in our 20 years cleaning up the Missouri River.
Our next largest tire removal was during our Rocheport cleanups on October 11th and 12th. When scouting, the crew only saw a few tires here and there. As often happens, once volunteers got out in the forest, there were way more tires out there. We ended up with 65 tires for the two days!
This made for a haul we did not foresee, and we had to fully load the backs of our trucks because we ran out of space in our trailer. Because we've cleaned this area in the past, we guessed that a lot of these tires came from the 2019 flood that greatly affected the small towns in this stretch. Flooding is generally how most of the trash ends up above the bankline in the riverside forest.
Scrap metal comes in all shapes and sizes. When metal is exposed to the environment, it eventually starts to rust. Most of the metal we find is already starting to break down, so its important for us to move slowly and make a plan before moving the items. We also do not put it in bags since they rip through bags easily.
Eventually, we haul all of the collected scrap to a recycling facility. We find scrap metal from cars, boats, barges, and even household appliances. Although surprising to hear at first, it's unfortunately common to find refrigerators. A lot of these are dumped into the river. 20 refrigerators and 4 mini-fridges were found floating or sitting on the banks of the river or stuck on wing dikes. The crew hauls all of the scrap metal to a scrap yard, and the total was 3.6 tons of scrap metal!
A refrigerator found floating downstream.
Among the scattered trash, we find plenty of larger trash items. This includes 5-gallon buckets, mineral tubs, coolers, trash cans, couches, PVC pipe, televisions, and 55-gallon plastic barrels! Throughout the Clean Sweep, we reused some of these items, especially the 5-gallon buckets! We ran into some SUPER big items that took some time to excavate. Some real uncommon items were found, including a porta-potty and a 500-gallon septic tank. A couple were big enough for stories!
The first item was a fiberglass boat. We found this right at the sandbar we were camping at near Brunswick completely full of mud. While most of the crew left to run other errands, Linda Coffman and Nancy McKenna stayed back and dug it out. Go ladies! Afterwards, the crew put their heads together to create a cork so that the boat could float! At the time, the Clean Sweep crew was down to one boat, so this gave us more space to haul trash to the dumpster.
Another big item we found was a 1500-gallon cistern tank. This took two days to fully remove! The tank rested under huge pieces of driftwood, so the first thing we did was remove the logs with chainsaws. Next, we cut a door open and slowly cut more off as we dug the mud out. Matt, Steve, and I were the operators on this project. I can attest that it was no easy task. We rotated digging, and eventually I just got down on my hands and knees to remove the mud when it got too hard to pull it out with a shovel. We called it “oogly” mud. Add that to the dictionary!
Jokes aside, it was an amazing piece of junk to get out of the river and it was a great bonding experience with Matt and Steve! We had originally guessed that it was a 500-gallon tank, but later we found that it was 1500 gallons. Basically, we dug out 1500 gallons worth of mud. Great workout!
Personal items are always fun to find, and make great items when we hold our Trash Contests at our bigger cleanup events. We have to make this job fun somehow! A little friendly competition when volunteers came back always kept the spirits up after the hard work was through.
The garbage we find on the Missouri River can be surprising, funny, and fulfilling, but it can also be overwhelming and sad. I can recall my thoughts from our first week on the Clean Sweep when we found areas of extremely high-density trash. The days were hot, and there was so…much…trash. It took a toll on my mind. I thought to myself, “what the heck was the point?” There was so much trash that I could pick up a piece and there would be more under…
The more cleanups we had with volunteers, the more I realized it was more than just the garbage we picked up. The more time we spent on the river, meeting fishermen and other people on the river, the more I realized it was more than just the trash. The farther we got secluded from civilization and experienced the beauty of nature, the more I appreciated what we were out there doing. All the efforts were made to get people to care and appreciate the Missouri River as it is. We have many purposes for the river, and what gets a lot of people is the fact that over 40 percent of Missourians get their water from it. It made me feel great when the fishermen thanked us. It made me feel especially great when I’d hear volunteers express how the cleanups were going to change their daily habits! Looking back, I would do all of it 100 times over.
We found a lot of stuff. 23.5 tons worth of stuff at that. Everyone that had a hand in this project should be very proud. Every piece we took off of the river has a lasting effect on our environment, no matter how big or small!
From August 21 to October 16, throughout the stretch from Riverfront Park in Kansas City, MO to Cooper’s Landing in Columbia, MO, volunteers and crew collected: