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How to Organize a River Cleanup

What could be more rewarding than returning a local river or stream to its pristine, trash-free state? Here's how to put together a cleanup team in your area.


  • Step 1: Scout some sites Select a river to clean up. If you don't have an area in mind, contact American Rivers, who will connect you with a local watershed association or outfitter. Whether the land is public or private, you'll need permission to clean it; download a copy of the Organizer's Handbook at for guidance on how to obtain permission.
  • Step 2: Gather volunteers Once you have a site and a cleanup date, gather volunteers. Besides asking family and friends, appeal to local environmental groups for help in recruiting volunteers. Place notices at your library, workplace, and outdoor enthusiast shops. Consider asking local scout troops to make it one of their projects.
  • TIP: Alert local news organizations in advance so they can publicize your cleanup and help get volunteers.
  • Step 3: Divide into groups Divide volunteers into groups to pick up litter along the river's edge. Designate a specific area for each group.
  • TIP: American Rivers will ship you trash and recycling bags, or ask local vendors to donate them.
  • Step 4: Prep the volunteers Prepare volunteers for cleanup day. Urge them to bring work gloves, sunscreen, insect repellent, drinking water, and work boots or waders. Tell them to use caution when handling trash, and to avoid hazardous materials like needles, broken glass, aerosol cans, and drums that may contain toxic waste.
  • Step 5: Get signed waivers Have each volunteer sign an acknowledgement of the risk involved. Find a sample liability waiver and companion toolkit at
  • TIP: Cleaning a waterway involves hazards that should be identified and explained in advance to volunteers. Remind volunteers that they are responsible for their own safety.
  • Step 6: Dispose of waste Know in advance how you're going to dispose of the garbage you gather. Find volunteers to haul it away, or make arrangements with your local waste management company to pick it up.
  • TIP: Separate steel, aluminum, plastics, and glass and take them to the local recycling center.
  • Step 7: Celebrate! Plan on having a barbecue or picnic afterwards to celebrate your hard work, get to know your fellow volunteers, and to congratulate each other on your work to protect and restore your local river.
  • FACT: More than 300,000 volunteers removed 1.2 million pounds of trash from 76,000 miles of rivers and streams last year alone.

You Will Need

  • A river or stream to clean
  • Volunteers
  • Trash and recycling bags
  • Liability waivers
  • A trash-removal method
  • Publicity (optional)
  • A celebratory bash (optional)

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