Taking Out the Trash
On autumn afternoons in the late 1980s, Paul Nordell would find a grassy spot overlooking a gorge on the Mississippi River just upstream from his office in St. Paul, Minnesota. He enjoyed the solitude, but not much else.
“It smelled,” Nordell says. “I’d watch kids weaving their bikes between refrigerators and appliances that had been dumped there. A few good rainfalls and that stuff was in the river.”
All over the state people would drive out to the countryside where nobody could see them doing their dastardly deeds with paint cans, car parts and anything that couldn’t be sold out of a garage. In the land of 10,000 lakes and umpteen hundred rivers, guess where the junk eventually wound up? Everyone found out in June 1988 when volunteers collected 80 tons of crap from a section of the Mississippi River in one day.
A year later, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources birthed an Adopt-A-River program, and in 1991 Nordell became its coordinator. Since then, 80,000 volunteers have picked up 5.8 million pounds of garbage from 9,500 miles of public waterways. Some 300,000 tires alone have been pulled from a site along the Minnesota River in Belle Plaine before they could float away.
“We used to call Belle Plaine the No. 1 exporter of tires to the Twin Cities,” says Nordell, whose group sends the tires to clean-burning power plants and to makers of synthetic athletic fields.
One of Nordell’s favorite days is when he takes fourth- through sixth-graders out for what he calls Mississippi River: CSI. The students get a bag of river trash to figure out how each item got into the water. The smoking gun rarely points to boaters. The kids find tire tracks on a fast-food bag, or a can crushed by a shoe, and figure out that the garbage starts in the streets and escapes to the water.
“There have been huge changes in awareness in the past 20 years,” Nordell says. “I can look around today and appreciate the beauty of the water, not just listen to it. But we don’t know if the job is done, so we don’t dare stop.” — R.S.