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Volunteers clear thousands of pounds of trash from the Missouri River in Kansas City

A group of six people walk along the banks of the Missouri River. On their right is a barge moving past. In the background is the Christopher S. Bond Bridge.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
(Front to back) Gins Goldstein, Jake Jeffrey, Elly Goldstein, Jill Westra, and Mark Franzke volunteered with Boston Beer Company, one of the sponsors of the cleanup. In all, the group picked up more than 15 bags of trash from their section of the cleanup.

The Missouri River Relief cleanup drew more than 150 volunteers, even with the threat of severe rain. Volunteers picked up a 10-mile stretch of the riverfront in Kansas City, finding everything from tires and lawn chairs to headlights and fenders.

More than 150 volunteers joined Missouri River Relief Saturday for a large-scale trash cleanup along a 10-mile stretch of the riverbank in Kansas City. The volunteers join tens of thousands of others who have participated in river cleanups across the state in the past two decades.

Since it was founded in 2001, Missouri River Relief has hosted 212 river cleanup events with over 31,000 volunteers. In that time, they’ve collected more than 2 million pounds of trash.

Trash enters the Missouri River in many different ways – from illegal dumping, local litter or flowing downstream from far away tributaries. Alyssa Thomas, the stewardship and outreach coordinator for Missouri River Relief, said the cleanups help keep the river healthy but also help them ensure the trash doesn’t flow into larger bodies of water.

“We like to say we all live downstream,” Thomas said. “Picking it up where it's at will keep it from eventually getting down to the Gulf and then in those big trash patches you see out in the middle of the oceans.”

During the cleanup, volunteers were ferried along the river, starting at Riverfront Park, by boats to pre-scouted cleanup sites. Sometimes, Thomas said, volunteers will see mini trash islands in the river when large patches of it get caught on rocks during strong currents. But most of the trash comes from flooding or litter tossed off bridges and on roads or trails near the river.

There are six dams along the Missouri River. Kevin Tosie, operations director for Missouri River Relief, said a lot of the trash comes downstream from the closest dam to Kansas City: Gavins Point Dam on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota. Tosie also says you can tell a little bit about a region based on its trash.

“Kansas City loves QuickTrip,” he said. “It is like your bread and butter and it really shows on the banks downstream of here. Where this cleanup is today is actually upstream of kind of the most polluting river from Kansas City, which is the Blue River. Downstream of there is where we really see a lot of the outflow from Kansas City. A lot of the trash here is coming from the Omaha, Nebraska, area and those tributaries.”

A boat with passengers sitting inside speeds past. Water makes waves behind it. In the background, trees line the shore.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
More than 150 volunteers were taken on boats along the shoreline for Missouri River Relief's first cleanup of the year. Organizer estimate they collected between 5-7 tons of trash.

Thomas said they take people along the river by boat to reach areas that aren’t accessible by foot.

“A lot of the trash that we find on the river is draining out from the Kansas City area,” Thomas said. “So those are areas that normal people will not be, usually, they're pretty secluded. There's so much more trash out there. If we can get to them by boat and then pull it off directly on the river, it saves a lot of footing.”

The Saturday event was 10-year-old John Gravinos’ first river cleanup. He and his group found shoes, tires, old library books, a radio, a flip-flop and a turtle fossil.

Gravino, who volunteered with the Greater Kansas City United Nations Association, said volunteering with Missouri River Relief helped him realize what he can do as a young environmentalist.

“I think it's important (to clean up trash), so our river's going to be more clean,” Gravino said. “If the rivers are clean, there will be less pollution.”

Ingrid Gomez drives past the river every day on her way to school at Rockhurst University. There, she lives in campus housing that prioritizes sustainability, so she and many of her floormates decided the cleanup was a natural extension of their mission.

“It was so interesting to learn how sacred the river is,” Gomez said. “We are so privileged to live around a river and because of that, we are not as mindful of our water usage or rationing. I thought (the cleanup) would be a great way for me to not only do my part but also give back to the river for the life that it gives.”

Gomez estimated she and her group picked up more than 12 bags that can hold 35 pounds of trash. The clean-up reframed Gomez’s relationship with the river, and she said she wants to make sure others are empowered to take care of it, too.

“When you just throw trash out in your backyard or on the roads, it's coming back to the river,” Gomez said. “So it's not necessarily that people are coming here and dumping their trash in the river. If everyone takes the responsibility that they have just based on how much the river gives to us, I think it would make a big difference in how much trash we're picking up today.”

Thomas said newcomers like Gavino and Gomez turn into cleanup regulars, which is why registration for this event filled up in a matter of days.

Blue trashbags and bulky trash items sit alone the shoreline of the river. A boat moves past. In the background is the Christopher S. Bond bridge.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Volunteers with Missouri River Relief have collected more than 2 million pounds of trash along the river since 2001. At their first cleanup of the year, volunteers cleaned a 10-mile stretch in Kansas City.

This is the second cleanup that Mark Bates, regional director for St. James Winery and Public House Brewing, has participated in. The winery has water conservation programs of its own and has supported Missouri River Relief for more than a decade.

Bates drove in from St. Louis for the event and plans to go to every cleanup the organization hosts in the state. He said he always finds something interesting.

“I was expecting consumer debris, like water bottles and whatnot, but there was a lot of construction debris – railroad ties and nails and cables – so I was surprised by that,” Bates said.

While the trash collected Saturday won’t be weighed for another few weeks, Tosie said volunteers collected an “enormous” amount of trash before the next flood.

“A typical cleanup of this size really results in anywhere from five to seven tons (of trash collected) if you include scrap metal and tires,” Tosie said. Every time we have a high water event or a really heavy rainfall in Kansas City, we see that steady flow of styrofoam and plastic roll down the river.”

Missouri River Relief is hosting three more cleanups this year across Missouri and Nebraska. Tosie said he hopes events like this inspire people to dedicate time to conservation work.

“We should all care,” he said. “In Kansas City, the drinking water comes from this river. On top of that, there's aquatic life to think about and people who rely on this river for recreation, food and water. ”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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