“It’s actually the most fun you’ll have in two hours of picking up trash,” says Colton Cockrum, advisor to the Memphis River Warriors, a local group whose mission is to clean up along the Mississippi River and the waterways that flow through the city.
“It’s very laid back and we have a great group that leads everyone,” said Cockrum, Assistant Director of the Center for Academic Retention and Enrichment Services at the University of Memphis.
He noted that the group has been keeping track of the amount of trash it has collected, and that the next clean-up scheduled for Nov. 16 will mark 50,000 pounds of trash bagged by the Memphis River Warriors.
“What’s really cool is that we’ve recycled over 30,000 pounds of that trash,” Cockrum said. “All of this trash comes off the streets of Memphis, goes into Nonconnah Creek and then flows into McKellar Lake. So essentially, we are picking up our own trash.”
“There’s nowhere for it to go from there, so it just accumulates when the water comes up and it goes into the forest,” she explained. “Once the water goes down, the trash just stays.”
Her sister, Grace, a U of M senior studying bioengineering, is president of the group. She is excited about reaching the 50,000 pound mark around the time of America Recycles Day.
“This is such a huge accomplishment for us and for our city,” she beamed. “The volunteers that come to these clean-ups have made a huge difference, and we are proud to be a part of something that is enhancing Memphis.”
Participants are welcomed from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.
“We will be launching from the Riverside Marina in MLK Park,” Colton said. “Volunteers need to wear long sleeves and durable shoes. We provide gloves, water and trash bags.”
The trash bags and gloves are donated by Memphis City Beautiful, the group’s main collaborative partner. Colton, a 35-year-old Oklahoma native, said the Warriors also work with Living Lands & Waters and the local chapter of the Sierra Club.
Scott Banbury, who occupies the Tennessee Chapter Conservation Chair at the Sierra Club, said his group is always excited to work with the Memphis River Warriors and are particularly grateful for Cockrum's leadership and dedication to keeping the Memphis waterfront clean.
“The Sierra Club often assists the work of the River Warriors,” Banbury said, “By making available the 26 ft. river skiff that Living Lands and Waters donated to the Sierra Club and the Tennessee Environmental Council, to haul bags of refuse back to the pickup point.”
Colton explained that local involvement first came about through Living Lands and Waters, and noted that their founder, Chad Pregracke, is up for a CNN Heroes award.
“While they were here they said that Memphis had the worst accumulation of trash in their over one decade of doing river clean-ups,” Colton continued. “They also said that if they weren’t there cleaning up, no one would be – and they were right.”
It was soon after they left that a group of U of M students started to plan clean-ups.
In the two and one-half years of gathering trash, both Colton and Grace Waters said that they had encountered a few “gross and nasty” items, but that was usually an anomaly and they had learned to deal with it.
“We’ve found lots of unusual things such as a prosthetic leg, car bumpers, refrigerators, and lots and lots of balls," Colton said. “It’s amazing how many basketballs end up in the river.”
Waters was surprised to once retrieve a Coach purse, a very expensive designer handbag, at one of the clean-ups.
But mostly they find trash – and plenty of it.
“For this next clean-up, we’ll be launching by boat into the interior of McKellar Lake,” Colton said, “Where the trash is so thick you can stand in one spot and fill two trash bags."
He said that the group concentrates mainly on McKellar Lake because of the high volume of trash there, but also performs two or three clean-ups every year at the Wolf River Harbor downtown.
“Typically we meet at one spot and have groups of volunteers spread out over a large area,” Colton explained. “We then bring the trash back to one central location where we have the recycling trucks haul away the recyclables. What’s left over is used for photo ops – there’s nothing like standing on top of a pile of 150 tires.”
Grace Waters said volunteers sign waivers before beginning work.
“We grab a pair of gloves, listen to the rules – what can be recycled, what to do if you find needles, etc. – then head out with a group leader to an area with trash,” she said. "Then we will clean up for about two hours and head back to return the gloves, sanitize our hands, grab a water and take pictures.”
The Warrior’s president said she became involved through the Honors Student Council at the U of M before the group officially started two and one-half years ago. She’s been very pleased with their growth.
“We started regular clean-ups and had around 30 participants,” Waters said. “Then it started growing, and now we have close to 150 at each clean-up.”
Colton said the group sees a lot of wildlife during the clean-ups, citing armadillo sightings and evidence that deer frequent the area, but there are some critters they take measures to avoid.
“We are very cautious during snake season,” he stressed, “And stay away from places they like to hide – namely tires.”
But reptiles will not be a concern when cooler temperatures prevail at the Nov. 16 clean-up. Colton said everyone is welcomed to participate and invited volunteers to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to Memphis River Warriors on Facebook.