The Clean Sweep: "Living on the River, for the River"

"Living on the River, for the River" - Shift 1 of the Big Muddy Clean Sweep

LaBenite Park and camp 2 miles upstream - Saturday, 8/21 - Wednesday, 8/25/2021

By Steve Schnarr, Executive Director

Waking up on a sandbank next to the Missouri River with no other objective for the day except to work with a bunch of volunteers and get as much trash off the river as possible…I feel lucky.

But when I look around and see this small group of river trash warriors prepping for a day of river cleanup – getting breakfast set out, moving gear to the boats, flexing their bodies and filling water jugs – I am so ready for this.

Our first Clean Sweep camp, on a sandbar about mile 355. Photo by Steve Schnarr.

What is the Big Muddy Clean Sweep?

The Big Muddy Clean Sweep is a two-month effort to move Missouri River Relief resources 200 miles down the river from Kansas City to Columbia, picking up as much trash as we can along the way. 2021 is our 20th Anniversary cleaning up trash from the Missouri River. The Clean Sweep idea came about as we thought of ways to utilize the equipment and volunteer energy we’ve built over 20 years to do something unprecedented, covering some reaches of the river we’d never cleaned up before in an intimate way, at the speed of the river.

Our focus is to clean up the visible banks of the river…what you can see as you float by. We know, from our 20 years of cleaning up the Missouri River, that there is even more trash deposited on the floodplain above. We are certainly going after spots like that too, but our focus is what you can see from the river.

The Clean Sweep kicked off with a 150-volunteer cleanup just downstream of downtown Kansas City, with the skyline keeping us company day and night. Those folks nearly filled a 40-yard dumpster with river trash, and reclaimed a pile of 200 tires - many of them from an art installation that unfortunately ended up dumped below the 435 bridge (but fortunately river warrior Laura Semken found it!). A huge bunch of Missouri River Relief Crewmembers camped out for the weekend (even through a crazy storm the night before the cleanup) making the event so smooth and effective.

The day after the KC Cleanup, everyone headed home except our Clean Sweep Core Crew, loading up the gear we needed to establish our camp for the next several weeks and then we boated downstream to our next camp spot. Pulling away from the boat ramp with a boat full of gear was liberating and exciting. Let the Clean Sweep begin!

The Clean Sweep Core Crew is 5 staff members, with more volunteers and staff coming and going throughout the effort. And on certain designated Community Cleanup days, dozens more join the effort for a morning or afternoon. The Core Crew is mostly camping along the river, looking for comfortable camp spots (preferably with afternoon shade or a swimming beach for cooling off!). Temps have been as hot as they’ve been all year, and keeping cool is so important.

Great Partners

Our first two mornings of the Big Muddy Clean Sweep (Aug. 23 & 24) were spent working with volunteers from the Mo. Dept. of Natural Resources Water Protection Division and Spire. Both groups passionately attacked the work at hand. Spire is one of the sponsors of the Big Muddy Clean Sweep and the employees that joined us were on-point. Working with our friends at DNR was a special treat. Those folks have a totally different window into the health and future of the Missouri River and it was great to hear that as we worked.

Over those first two days, 30 volunteers removed 75 bags of junk from the river. And a bunch of tires and assorted other junk. Nice work team!


The trash load in these reaches just downstream of Kansas City is breathtaking. Despite the cleanup efforts that we and others have put into the Missouri River here, every storm brings in more litter and junk flowing from the tributaries pouring out of the downtown area and suburbs. Straws, cups, bottles, polystyrene, tires…so much junk. Some of it is floating, swirling around in eddies and cruising straight down the channel. Most is stuck in piles of driftwood or scattered throughout the floodplain forest. It feels so good to clean up pile after pile, working with teams of others.

After working with our morning volunteer groups, we spent our first several afternoons shuttling our equipment downstream and delivering our massive tire pile to a local tire recycler – ABC Recycling.

By the time I ended my first shift on the Clean Sweep crew, we had moved downstream one more step, to a place affectionately named Alligator Cove. Despite the fact that there have been several owners of this property over the past two decades, we continue to host events out of there. Current owners Bill Fessler and Milan Rodgers welcome us with open arms. They are family. In the shade of the old cottonwoods and silver maples, we prepared for another weekend community cleanup and cleaned up more tons of junk from nearby driftwood piles and beaches.

Part of the pile of tires volunteers recovered from the Missouri River floodplain. Photo by Steve Schnarr.

Making it Look Easy

This effort has been organized by our Operations Manager Kevin Tosie, with tons of help from Stewardship Americorps member Alyssa Thomas. Although there’s plenty of room for evolution and adaptation, sometimes it seems like there is no detail these two have not planned for. They make it “easy” for the rest of us!

One of the thoughtful touches they added was providing a way for MRR Crew members to adopt certain dinners on a Meal Train. They sign up for an evening, then show up with home-cooked meals. We’ve already had lasagna and street tacos from Kris Mattern, then local pulled pork from Melanie Cheney and outrageous berry cobbler (and more) from Doris Guillory in the next shift at Alligator Cove. It takes such love to pull all of that together, travel out to wherever the Clean Sweep crew is and serve up such tasty treats. It is a huge uplift to the crew. Thank you all so much!

We'll introduce some of the other amazing Clean Sweep Core Crewmembers in a future post. We are so lucky to have such a solid team. See you on the river!

Stretch Results:

  • Miles: mm 354 – mm 348 (6 miles)
  • Volunteers:
    • Shift crew: 9
    • 8/23 volunteers: 10 (DNR)
    • 8/24 volunteers: 19 (Spire)
  • Trash:
    • Bags: 75
    • Tires: 16
    • Refrigerators: 2
    • Other finds: 55-gallon plastic barrel, motorcycle helmet, winter coat, lots of sports balls!

The Mattern family came with lasagna! Photo by Alyssa Thomas.

Ready for Action?

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