In perfect spring break weather, college students from around the country gathered on McKellar Lake as Daft Punk and Pharrell tunes pumped out of a boat-mounted sound system.
Rachel Orton, a student in the social work master’s program at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, clears trash from McKellar Lake as part of the alternative spring break clean-up effort.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
And since March 1, that spring break crowd has been filling a trash barge with what is expected to be 150,000 pounds of concrete, plastic bottles, discarded dolls, other toys and tires by the time the effort concludes on March 20.
This is the fourth year the national nonprofit Living Lands & Waters has organized the “alternative spring break” on McKellar.
For Living Lands & Waters founder Chad Pregracke – who was named CNN’s 2013 Hero of the Year for his efforts to clean up the Mississippi River – McKellar Lake is more than just another stop in an effort that involves 70,000 volunteers who pick up 8 million pounds of garbage nationally for recycling.
“It’s one of the worst places I’ve ever been,” Pregracke said Tuesday, March 11, aboard the floating headquarters for the McKellar Lake cleanup. “To date, we’ve done 794 cleanups of 23 rivers in 20 states. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The problem that brings his organization and hundreds of students from dozens of colleges to McKellar Lake is carried into the lake from Nonconnah Creek.
Pregracke is working on a new solution with the Clean River Project, a nine-year-old nonprofit group that works on New England’s Merrimack River.
Clean River Project founder Rocky Morrison has been in Memphis this week to talk with Pregracke and local and state leaders about the new technique. It promises to change what is now a painstaking, labor-intensive effort in which the garbage is picked up by hand once a year with no decrease in the overall amount of waste collected in the last three years.
“We run a lot of booms to collect a lot of the trash that he has a problem with,” Morrison said. “He needs to go one step further. He needs to drop his equipment and put his booms in. But he needs to go further up and see exactly where this stuff is coming from and hit it way upriver and find out if he can make a solution up there.”
The booms Morrison is talking about would be deployed where the trash tends to concentrate and the booms have a lot of capacity.
“It compacts. It goes a foot and a half down,” he said. “You could have a full tree in there and you wouldn’t even know it until you started emptying it out. It drains a lot of debris.”
And the effort would involve letting the same current that brings the garbage into McKellar Lake take the booms to their first destination for cleanup.
“Once they fill up, we actually make a doughnut out of them,” Morrison said. “We circle them and pull them out and let the current take them downriver several miles. Then we open them up at a landing or boat ramp and … we unload them.”
Morrison, like Pregracke, is overwhelmed by the volume of garbage in McKellar, which he called “horrifying.”
“It’s overwhelming when you see the magnitude of trash that has floated down this river,” he added. “It’s like someone took 20 garbage trucks that are full and just kept dumping them and it spread over a large area.”
Tuesday, plastic containers dominated much of the garbage a group of about two dozen volunteers focused on along a stretch of the lake’s shores near the Mitsubishi plant, with the sound system boat providing encouragement. In little time, the group had several dozen clear plastic bags piled up to be loaded onto the boats that brought them.
From there, the garbage was loaded onto a barge – tires in one section, smaller, bagged material in another section, and the old dolls tied to the barge’s chain link fence like trophies.
While Living Lands & Waters’ floating headquarters is on McKellar Lake, school groups will visit for explanations of the project and its importance.
And the effort is open to volunteers.
In the last three years, local organization River Warriors has aided the Living Lands & Waters effort, picking up 70,000 pounds of trash during that time.
State government has provided more than $200,000 in funding for the McKellar cleanup in the last two years, according to Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer, who was in Memphis this week to visit the effort. The funding is part of a pool of money for such efforts that the state gets from a tax on the malt beverage and bottling industries in Tennessee.
“If you spend a half day cleaning up, you will never, ever litter again as long as you live,” Schroer said.