Saturday came windy, cold and cloudy. But is was still enough like spring to draw hundreds of local residents to the Potomac river to canoeing, biking, walking and a less idyllic, but no less important activity—picking up trash.
“It just seemed like the decent thing to do,” said Jim Campbell, who joined more than 2,600 people along the path of the Potomac for the 15th annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup, sponsored by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an Accokeek, Md.-based conservation organization.
During the event’s 15-year history, volunteers have removed over 800 tons of trash from the Potomac watershed, covering parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, the District and Virginia.
This year cleanup efforts at 138 sites brought in over 72 tons of trash in just three hours. “I was surprised by how much stuff there was,” said Chase Raines, an eighth-grade student at H-B Woodlawn. “We just went 10 feet and there was already a bunch of plastic bags.”
Raines and his brother Drew, a Woodlawn 10th grader, volunteered at Roosevelt Island, one of three designated Arlington cleanup sites. Jean Zettler, one of the site coordinators for the Potomac Conservancy, reported about 80 volunteers showed up between 9 a.m. and noon.
Several volunteer groups co-sponsored Arlington efforts, including the Potomac Conservancy, Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and Single Volunteers of DC.
Jonathan Distler and Chris Martin singed up for the even through SVDC. Spending their Saturday mornings cleaning up trash was more of a social event than people might think, they said.
“The funniest thing I found was an old radio,” along with some empty beer bottles. “Somebody had obviously had a little party out there and left their stuff,” said Distler.
ORGANIZERS PAID particular attention to bottles this year, in an effort to heighten awareness of recycling. Throughout the 138 cleanup sites, volunteers found an estimated 51,500 plastic bottles. That made up just two tons of the 72 total tons collected, but accounted for 25 percent of the total volume of trash. Those bottles could have been recycled easily, but instead ended up in the Potomac.
Elizabeth McLaughlin, another District resident, also found a wide variety of items floating in the shallows by the riverbank—a hat, shoes and a pair of pants. “I was just hoping they wouldn’t be attached to anyone,” she said. “Luckily I have gloves.”
Rubber gloves and waders were important pieces of equipment for the cleanup effort, as the chilly weather didn’t scare volunteers from splashing through the marshy edges of the island.
The cleanup effort came just before high tide, and recent rains added to the river’s height. Even more trash would have been collected during low tide, organizers said. High water covers much of the debris or washes it farther downstream. That meant Roosevelt Island didn’t appear too polluted to some volunteers. “There are dirtier places,” said Chris Vaughn, a resident of the District.
Even so, volunteers at that location were able to collect truckloads of garbage, including some interesting items like unopened cans of food and a guitar.
The Alice Ferguson Foundation has set a goal of having a trash free river in 10 years.