Newswise — MACOMB/MOLINE, IL – Four students and one faculty member from Western Illinois University's Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Administration (RPTA) spent their Spring Break week with a national organization whose mission is cleaning up America's rivers.
RPTA Associate Professor Rob Porter and WIU students Antonio Raya, an RPTA graduate student from East Moline, IL; Elizabeth Cash, a senior law enforcement and justice administration major and RPTA minor from Hillside, IL; Kristel Bowden, a junior RPTA major from Bettendorf, IA; and Madeline Kull, a junior RPTA major from Moline, IL, spent March 12-16 in the backwaters of the Mississippi River in Memphis, TN, working with the Living Lands and Waters organization.
Living Lands and Waters, headquartered in East Moline, IL, is the only "industrial strength" river cleanup organization in the world. It was founded in 1998 by Chad Pregracke, who began his cleanup alone with one boat on the Mississippi River. Since that time, Pregracke's organization has expanded to be based on its own river barge, cleaning up millions of pounds of garbage and moving into other conservation areas, including tree planting.
Because of regular flooding in the area, trash is left high and dry on the riverbank of the Mississippi River in Tennessee. The WIU contingent joined 85 other volunteers from across the United States and 10 Living Lands and Waters staff members to clean up 60,000 pounds of garbage in one week.
"We cleaned out trash consisting mainly of plastic water bottles and Styrofoam," said Porter. "This is the start of the Living Lands and Waters cleanup season."
Porter said the idea for the trip came when he was approached by WIU alumnus Dan Breidenstein, a 2013 RPTA graduate, who is now a permanent staff member with Living Lands and Waters. WIU is working with Living Lands and Waters on other projects, including creating a prairie area on WIU's Quad Cities campus. RPTA also hopes to help in future efforts, such as removing invasive species where Interstate-80 meets the Mississippi River.
Living Lands and Waters also provided funding for three of the students to attend the Spring Break trip at no cost for food, lodging and travel expenses.
Porter said he thought the trip was important for Western students to work alongside role models who were taking action to benefit the environment.
"I try to create opportunities for students to take action to protect the environment and support the community and the people who live there," said Porter. "A lot of people talk about our environmental problems. On this trip, students realized that some this garbage came from our community and they can't just sit back and talk about the problem of trash. They have to act upon it."
Cash said she had an "absolute blast" on the unique Spring Break trip.
"From the eight-hour car ride down to the very last plastic bottle I picked up, it was extremely eye opening to see the amount of trash that was in the Mississippi River," she said. "You see it on TV, but it doesn't compare to the real life experience. What really stuck out to me though, was the amount of students who were there because they wanted to make a difference. I really felt like I was making a difference."
Bowden agreed, calling her Tennessee trip "a very humbling and refreshing experience."
"All of the people working there were like-minded and very easy going," she said. "I had one of the best experiences laughing, picking up trash and coming together for a wonderful cause."
For Kull, the trip was awe-inspiring, seeing how much trash was there and how it could negatively impact numerous environmental factors.
"The plastic and garbage looked just like snow on the land and water," she said. "I would dig an inch into the ground and still find bits of plastic and Styrofoam. I would often get left behind as people moved along the shoreline picking up garbage because I took my time to try to get all the bits of foam out of the water and ground. I just, in good conscience, could not leave anything behind. In my head, I feel some of those smaller pieces are the most dangerous; they are bite-size and are most likely to be swallowed by fish and many other creatures who call the river and shorelines their home."
Kull said that even though the work required a lot of heavy lifting, she loved her time doing river cleanup with the crew from Living Lands and Waters.
"The feeling of knowing you are doing good for the world and this river is such a wonderful feeling, but you do have to get past the feeling of awe and rage as you see all the garbage," she said. "Chad and his foundation are full of just wonderful people who are working hard to make the river we live on a healthy safe place for all living things. I had such a wonderful time; I could actually see myself working for LLWC one day and picking up garbage for the rest of my life, who knows."
For more information on the WIU RPTA Department, visit wiu.edu/rpta. For more information about Living Lands and Waters, visit livinglandsandwaters.org/.