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Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, One Cleanup at a Time

Local Organization Connects with the Community to Keep Waterways Clean

The Tennessee River is a very polluted river, but the non-profit group Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful (KTNRB) is on a mission to change that.

Their goal is “to educate and inspire people to take action to create a clean, healthy, beautiful Tennessee River for generations to come.” To this end, the organization sponsors regular cleanup events at various spots along the riverfront, which is 652 miles long.

In January, 25 volunteers came together to collect 9,208 pounds of trash over the course of three days. Armed with trash bags and gloves, volunteers set out in a 25-foot aluminum boat from Pebble Isle Marina, approximately 75 miles west of Nashville.

[1.25.21] Provided by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful

January’s cleanup event was the result of a partnership with Johnsonville Historic State Park. Ranger Noah Sinz was instrumental in the planning process and garnered support from the local Humphries County Sanitation department, who donated a 30-yard dumpster and parked it at the Pebble Isle Marina for the event. 

“That’s how the change for our river will happen: through local partners and individuals who are eager about taking ownership to protect and improve their beautiful river community,” said Kathleen Gibi, Executive Director of KTNRB. “It’s been truly inspiring for us to see these change-makers take action—especially with the local leadership from Johnsonville State Historic Park.”

In addition to local leaders, national organizations have also shown support for KTNRB’s initiatives. Illinois-based non-profit Living Lands and Waters supported a similar cleanup event last October resulting in the removal of 4,811 pounds of trash. It’s not just organizations getting involved, individuals are jumping in too; volunteer turnout for the most recent public clean-up more than tripled since the October event. 

[10.24.20] Provided by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful

The Tennessee River contains a high concentration of microplastics, or small pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long. It seems the culprit for all this microplastic is litter consisting of bags and plastic-based packaging. 

“I’m really convinced that a large part of the problem stems from plastic litter,” said Dr. Martin Knoll of the University of the South in Sewanee. “Most of it is polyethylene, and that’s lightweight plastic packaging. That’s the classic Walmart, Kroger shopping bag. When you buy a head of broccoli that’s wrapped in plastic, it’s probably polyethylene. You see this stuff all over the ditches of the roadside. I think that’s a big part of the problem.”

Dr. Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium’s Conservation Institute, says the biggest thing locals can do is to reduce their consumption of plastics. 

“The most important thing we can do as individuals is to reduce the amount of new plastic in our lives,” George said. “There are very small actions we can take, like skipping the straw, bringing our own bags to the grocery store, or filling reusable bottles, that make a huge difference in the amount of plastic that is generated.”

KTNRB’s cleanup efforts have likely raised public awareness of how much trash actually ends up in waterways. In addition to trash removal, KTNRB also has a campaign to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in local rivers, streams, and lakes: #Pledge4Rivers. The initiative asks supporters to eliminate one plastic item such as bottles, straws, or bags from their daily habits for one year. 

Other initiatives include the Adopt a Mile program where individuals or organizations can adopt a mile of the Tennessee River. Adopters receive cleaning supplies free of charge and agree to host two cleanup events per year along their stretch of the riverfront. If you’re short on time, you can participate in Adopt a Storm Drain where you’ll spend 30 minutes clearing a drain on a monthly basis. According to KTNRB’s website, 80 percent of the litter in waterways originated on land. Rainwater washes trash into storm drains where it’s redirected into rivers and streams. 

KTNRB hopes to collect a whopping 100,000 pounds of trash by the end of this calendar year. They’re already well on their way, announcing on Instagram they’ve collected 10,000 pounds so far in 2021. 

If you’re local to Tennessee or want to get involved, KTNRB hosts cleanups along the river regularly.

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