Chad Pregracke says cleaning up rivers is his dream job. He and his 8-member crew cruise American waterways, scouting for trash. On this day they made a stop at a Mississippi Riverbank near St. Louis that is littered with plastic bottles, barrels, old tires, scrap metal and Styrofoam. "Just a ton of garbage," Pregracke says, "a disgusting sight to see."
The smaller stuff goes into garbage bags. Bigger items are dragged in for pickup. As he struggles with a rusted car engine bloc Pregracke says this is pretty much what his days are like, every day of the week, ten months a year. "Little by little it adds up, but there is sure a lot to go."
The Mississippi River, America's largest waterway, has always been a part of Chad Pregracke's life. It was his backyard playground growing up. "I didn't realize how lucky I was until I got a little bit older," he says, "We had ski boats. We had sailboats. We had canoes. We went fishing all the time."
In high school, Pregracke earned spending money as a diver, crawling around in the dark murky waters to harvest shells for the cultured pearl industry. He had to feel his way around garbage on the riverbed, and walk around trash that had washed up on shore.
When he turned 22, Pregracke announced that he would clean up the entire Mississippi river — all 37-hundred kilometers of it — one piece of trash at a time. Friends thought he was crazy. "My parents told me to cut my hair and get a real job," he says. But he was undeterred.
In 1997 Pregracke began recruiting sponsors for his effort. A decade later more than 70 companies and private foundations support his non-profit group, "Living Lands and Waters". "We went from one boat to having a fleet of boats. Now we have barges. We have small cranes, tractors, trucks, trailers, tow boats." Pregracke and crew live in a houseboat on the barge, which also has space to store and sort trash before it is recycled.
Last year, 'Living Lands and Waters' worked in 22 cities in six states and along the nation's largest rivers. Volunteers have picked up trash, planted trees and removed invasive species. He says the idea is simple. "Nobody likes trash. So everybody can come together and do something about it and feel positive about doing something about it and see the results."
Commercial fisherman Charlie Gilpin Junior says the Mississippi River is getting cleaner. Gilpin put his boat on a trailer and drove more than 300 kilometers at recent weekend to help at a 'Living Lands and Waters' cleanup near St. Louis. "It saddens you to see all the junk that is thrown out, by irresponsible people, but with Chad's efforts, Living Lands and Waters and all the volunteers, you can tell the difference,"
Pregracke now measures success by the barge load. He says trash pick-ups, tree plantings and educational workshops also serve to raise public awareness and generate wider support for cleaner rivers. "One person can make a big difference. But the real power is bringing people together for a common cause. That is how change happens."