Priya Cook and her six-year-old son, Kiran, were paddling on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., when they spotted something huge in the water. It wasn’t a fish. It wasn’t a turtle. It was … well, even after pulling it into their canoe, they weren’t exactly sure.
“It must have come off a boat or a car,” says Cook, who added the 15-pound hunk of junk to the collection of snack wrappers, golf balls, and other trash they’d gathered.
Her family was taking part in Anacostia Green Boats, a new initiative that invites folks to borrow canoes and clean up the river every Saturday. Since launching on Earth Day, it’s been enormously popular, says Portia Sampson-Knapp of Living Classrooms Foundation National Capitol Region, which runs the program with the city’s Department of Energy and Environment. Free reservations for the two-hour sessions fill up within minutes of being released online, and more than a thousand people have joined the mailing list.
“The pandemic has increased people’s awareness of outdoor spaces,” Sampson-Knapp says, so they’re more eager than ever to access them and protect them. “There’s man-made pollution, but there’s a man-made solution.”
The concept is closely related to “plogging”—a portmanteau of plocka upp (Swedish for “pick up”) plus jogging—now often done in parks and along trails. Although this aquatic variation doesn’t have a fun name yet (maybe “ploating”?), it’s already taken off in Europe thanks to the NGO GreenKayak, which inspired the creation of the Anacostia program. And more boat-based cleanups are popping up around the country.
“Of all of the things that could be trendy, picking up trash is a good one,” Cook says. For parents, it’s an active way to teach their children about environmental stewardship and a reminder of just how fun it is to paddle. “Kids’ excitement is contagious when you see how enthusiastic they are.”
No matter which waterway your family lives near, here’s a guide to taking out the trash.
What kids can learn from boat cleanups
Children who participate in boat cleanups get more out of the water than just junk—they’re also discovering how human choices impact local eco-systems. Litter tossed on a sidewalk might be nowhere near a river. But it often winds up in storm drains, which flow into local waterways and beyond.
“The point we want to drive home is that trash comes from many miles away,” Sampson-Knapp says.
Another key lesson? The sheer amount of stuff floating around. At the end of every Anacostia Green Boats session, participants dump their collection bags onto a large tarp and weigh them. According to Sampson-Knapp, their boaters have already cumulatively pulled more than 500 pounds out of the river. (Here’s how to do a trash audit at home.)
That’s about how much volunteers have carted away from each of the last two cleanups hosted by Visit Palm Beach in Florida, which offers discounted kayak rentals to folks who don’t have their own paddling equipment. The semi-regular sessions launched just before COVID-19 hit, which, according to Visit Palm Beach’s Leigh Bennett, turned out to be a boon for turnout since it’s easy to socially distance between boats.
“It’s disappointing to see how much accumulates—bottles, cigarette butts, and in these times, disposable masks,” she says. (This article shows you how to cut down on your pandemic pollution.) “But once you’re aware of it, you make sure you’re not contributing to it. We can reverse this by teaching kids.”
Andreea Timbal of West Palm Beach never leaves home without a bag to stash the trash she finds. That includes when her family takes out their trio of kayaks.
“It’s just standard for us,” she says. “Everybody should do that as a habit.” But although she and her 11-year-old son Sebastian have assisted with organized land cleanups before, participating in a recent cleanup with Visit Palm Beach was their first time doing one on the water.
They were led by a guide who talked about flora and fauna and currents, and explained the history of the artificial islands in Lake Worth Lagoon. “Before they were made, it was a dead zone—no fish, no wildlife,” Sebastian says. “When we saw [the islands], they were covered in green and a habitat for birds.”
To keep those islands healthy, the tween has been inspired to think about how his family can help haul away even more litter. He’s been toying with an idea to use his dad’s tools (with supervision) to invent a mount for a bag to attach to the back of a kayak.
What’s different on the water
Paddling away from the shoreline isn’t something most people do every day. For many kids, a water cleanup program could be one of their first chances to ever be in a boat.
That novelty factor definitely boosted her family’s experience, Cook says. Her sons acted like little captains on the river as they hunted for trash—“Now I want to be over there to get that bottle”—and what could have been drudgery was quickly a game.
Kids tend to be onboard with the boating idea, but in case they’re wary, Sampson-Knapp says, “I always like to use the word ‘adventure.’” And it truly can feel like a treasure hunt. One curious kid at a recent Anacostia cleanup insisted on investigating every single thing he spotted.
“Sometimes you think it’s trash, but it’s a log floating along,” Sampson-Knapp says.
Newbies need to remember that using watercraft requires thinking seriously about safety issues, starting with weather conditions. Cook’s family was caught in a pouring rainstorm, but blazing sun could be worse—and sometimes a single trip might be faced with both.
“You can wipe yourself out if you’re not careful,” Sampson-Knapp says, which is why it’s important to check forecasts and dress appropriately, including, of course, wearing life jackets.
Strategy is also often more critical on water than it is on land. To prevent tipping, especially in a canoe, avoid two people grabbing for trash at the same time, Sampson-Knapp advises. One person can maintain balance while the other collects debris, and then you can switch jobs.
“If it seems risky and you’re not sure you can get it, let that piece go,” she adds. “And take your time. There’s no rush.”
Do some cleanup-by-boat yourself
No organized program near you? No problem—unfortunately, litter is in waterways everywhere. Sampson-Knapp says you’ll find plenty in areas with higher population densities, around bends and bridges in rivers, and after rainstorms.
Beyond finding a boat or two, she recommends rounding up a few other simple supplies. “Gloves protect hands in case there’s glass or something with bacteria on it,” she says.
Or use trash pickers, which serve a dual purpose: They keep your fingers off gross stuff and can make it easier to pull hard-to-reach objects into a wobbly boat. Sampson-Knapp also likes collecting with a sturdy mesh bag, like the kind used for farm produce, that holds trash in but lets water drain out.
For some additional citizen science work, Sampson-Knapp suggests three more items: a tarp, a five-gallon bucket, and a digital fishing scale. You can lay out your haul and sort it by category to search for trends. Fill the bucket to determine volume, and then place it on the scale to get the weight. All of that data is worth tracking—and passing on to local officials, she says.
It’s also critical to have a plan for how to dispose of your trash. Sampson-Knapp advises against stuffing a lot into a nearby public bin, because it could overflow and end up back in the water. Either take it home to add to your garbage and recycling, or find a nearby dump. If you’re in a park, she adds, visitor services might be able to point you to an on-site dumpster.
The most important thing to bring with you may just be friends, notes Timbal, who wants to coordinate a water cleanup for their homeschool group. “All the kids need to be taught that this is something normal,” she says.