Then and Now: National River Cleanup History


It was in 1991 that a group of ambitious America Outdoors employees began planning the first National River Cleanup Week. Their goal? “Remove tons of trash and debris from over 3,000 miles of waterways, encourage public involvement in the stewardship of river resources, and foster better working relationships between river interest groups.”

In the twenty years since, much has changed in how we organize and run our river cleanups.

Here are some examples — Then and Now:

  • 1991: Registration required answering eight questions on a piece of paper. There was no email or website to contact, but that’s understandable since the original World Wide Web was only one year old! 2011: Registration is 24 questions, all online. What would we do with a paper registration?!
  • 1991: It was called National River Cleanup Week, and went from May 2nd- 10th. 2011: American Rivers dropped the “week.” We now host the National River Cleanup™ program year-round.
  • 1991: Liability waivers? What liability waivers? 2011: Lawyers, insurance and/or liability waivers are now often needed to host an event.
  • 1991: Promotional items included mailed invitations and fliers – i.e., more trash. 2011: Promotional items include things folks in 1991 had no idea would ever exist, like “Facebook posts” and “tweets.”
  • 1991: Here are some helpful tips on how to organize a successful river cleanup from the first press release. They mostly still hold true!
    • “Doing a cleanup just for publicity will backfire” You have to work hard. Pick an area that really needs cleaning up so you’ll have something to show for your efforts. It may be one location or an entire river segment. Piling debris in one location presents a great visual for the media if you’ve got something to show for your efforts.
    • “Getting Volunteers” Carefully screen volunteers. Make sure they’re prepared to work and not primarily interested in a day of fun on the river. Youth groups may not work unless there’s an adult in every boat.
    • “Taking Care of Volunteers” Feeding, recognizing, stroking and properly orienting volunteers is essential to productivity. They won’t work all day if they get hungry. Tell them to bring gloves, sunscreen, and proper footwear. Advise them of hazards such as poison ivy, snakes, and the usual hazards.

  2011: Tips are in the Organizer’s Handbook. You may find them a bit more… diplomatic!

There have been so many changes in the last twenty years, yet the goals remain the same: cleaning rivers and creating river stewards.

Thank you to the many volunteers who have dedicated twenty years or more to this worthy cause.