A rowdy group of college students slathers on sunscreen, getting ready for a day on the river.
Instead of bathing suits, these spring breakers are decked out in knee-high rubber boots and faded life jackets. They’re part of the Living Lands & Waters river cleanup crew and for a week, they’ll spend their days pulling trash from the Mississippi River near Grafton, Illinois.
Since the alternative spring break program began in 2010, about 1,300 college students from across the U.S. have collected more than 1.2 million pounds of trash.
“You can go out and see an island that’s just full of garbage, and in a matter of minutes, it’s the way it should be,” said Living Lands & Waters programs manager Tammy Becker. “We feel very blessed, because a lot of people can work all day and not really know what their impact is, but we get to see it everyday.”
For seven months of the year, the 10-member crew lives on a river barge and organizes cleanups along the Mississippi. This year, they’re docked in Grafton, but they’ve also worked in Memphis and Louisville.
The barge itself, which was built from a flooded strip club in 2011, is decorated with finds from their river cleanups. A chain-link fence is covered with baby dolls, many with eyes or limbs missing. Inside, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is filled with hundreds of small toys.
But the garbage collected during river cleanups isn’t always so cute. In previous years, students have hauled toilets, waterlogged Styrofoam and 50 gallon barrels out of the Mississippi.
“It’s kind of like a game; it’s almost like a treasure hunt. You never know what you’re going to find,” said Madeline Kull, a senior at Western Illinois University.
Among Kull’s treasures is a duck decoy, which she said she plans to take home and add to her collection. She enjoys the work, but she hopes that someday, river cleanups won’t be necessary.
“Through education and awareness, we can probably get it to where we don’t have to keep doing this over and over and over again,” Kull said, hoisting a plastic bag of trash over her shoulder. “I think we’ll get there eventually, but right now, we’re just going to have to keep picking up the trash.”
A hundred yards away, Illinois State senior Lindsay Sullivan is collecting pieces of Styrofoam. She said her friends were surprised that she decided to spend her spring break volunteering, but that she wanted to do it while she still had the chance.
“I don’t know if there will ever be opportunities like this again,” Sullivan said. “Once I start working, I don’t know if I’ll be able to just take off for a week to volunteer.”
The students haul their finds back to a central drop-off point, where the crew has started a small campfire and set out fixings for s’mores. They form a human chain, slowly transferring the trash onto a small metal boat.
“We got a helium tank here; some boat buoys, a hot-water heater,” said Living Lands & Waters Operations Manager John Bostrom, tallying up the day’s garbage. “Look at this treasure! We got a water ski!”
Bostrom isn’t new to river cleanups. He joined the nonprofit after completing an alternative spring break in 2009.
“At the end of the day, yeah, you’re tired and sore and covered in mud, but you see the results,” said Bostrom. “You see barge-loads of garbage. It’s very rewarding.”
This year, a total of 150 students volunteered with Living Lands & Waters during their spring break, collecting roughly 35,000 pounds of trash from the Mississippi.
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