Chad Pregracke grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River in East Moline, Illinois. He played in the water, camped on the islands, and eventually started making a living as a commercial fisherman and shell diver. However, as Pregracke entered adulthood and began his career, he began noticing how polluted and trash-strewn the river was.
Realizing something had to be done, Pregracke started calling government agencies to clean up the garbage. Instead of initiative, he met apathy and indifference. Some even asked him what garbage he was talking about.
“After a year of making phone calls, he switched gears and decided that if nobody else was going to do something about it, he would,” said Kate Runge.
Runge is the director of marketing for what would become Pregracke’s solution to the waste problem, a nonprofit called Living Lands and Waters (LL&W).
LL&W had simple beginnings, with Pregracke as its first employee. He started the nonprofit by doing river clean up himself on weekends in his own little, aluminum, flat-bottomed jon boat. After a while, he began cleaning up the river full time, but realized he needed a source of income to fund his work. Inspired by NASCAR races, Pregracke believed that “if people will pay to watch these guys drive around in circles, then they’ll pay me to help clean up the river,” Runge quotes him as saying.
Pregracke reached out to Alcoa, an Illinois-based aluminum supply company, asking for a grant to clean up the water. After some persistence on his part, Pregracke received an $8,400 grant from the company to clean up a 435-mile stretch of the Mississippi River.
“We started off from small beginnings and definitely grew off the idea that one man can make a difference,” Runge said.
From one man’s initiative in 1998, LL&W has grown exponentially, Runge says.
“To date we’ve worked on 23 rivers in 20 states, and with the help of 97,000 volunteers, we’ve cleaned up 8.7 million pounds of garbage from U.S. rivers.”
The group also has expanded into different areas, from its Million Trees Project, devoted to giving away 1 million trees, to removing invasive species like honeysuckle and kudzu, and establishing educational workshops. The nonprofit also has five barges that serve as a floating headquarters and recycling centers.
When volunteers conduct river cleanups, teams go out in jon boats and collect trash.
“We bring back the trash to our boats and do big assembly lines,” Runge said. “We have a little barge that we load all of the trash onto and then sort it. We have a pile of non-recyclable stuff, we have trash and a barge with tires and scrap metal.”
Amazingly, Living Lands and Waters is able to recycle about 80 percent of the refuse volunteers find along the river. Bridgestone takes all of the tires and repurposes them. All of the metal is recycled.
“Then, we do these events called Recycle Like a Rockstar where we have like 200 volunteers who will unload bags of trash, [and] throw them into troughs so they can sort through the stuff,” Runge said.
But the educational workshops are the chief source of pride. These take place on the floating barge where team members teach high schoolers about water quality, invasive species and other subjects.
“[The educational workshops] bring everything full circle. It’s one thing to clean up the river, it’s another thing to keep it clean,” Runge says. “So educating people on why the river is dirty is just as important.”
So, how has the river changed since Living Lands and Waters started?
“We’re known as the only industrial-strength river cleanup organization of our kind in the world … From St. Paul, Minnesota, to St. Louis, Missouri, we honestly can’t host volunteer events anymore because there’s not enough trash to clean up. There’s just no trash.”
Instead of the LL&W bringing the river back from the brink, volunteer groups now walk the Mississippi’s banks to keep the river clean.
Because the areas south of St. Louis aren’t safe for volunteers to clean, LL&W has decided to focus on cleaning up the Ohio River. And leaders hope that soon they’ll no longer be needed there, either.