Iowa Public Television


One Man's Trash Becomes Environmental Treasure

posted on October 24, 2003

Saturday is the 10th annual National Public Lands Day. To mark the occasion, environmentalists from across the nation will take part in clean-up projects on public lands. Government officials also will conduct education programs on riparian areas, as well as classes on land stewardship ethics.

The success of such efforts, of course, depends on volunteers. But it also takes visionaries and leaders who feel passionate about their work. Indeed, as producer John Nichols first reported last summer, it's possible in some cases for just one man's passion to foster meaningful environmental change.


One Man's Trash Becomes Environmental Treasure

Growing up in East Moline, Illinois, 28-Year-Old Chad Pregracke has spent all of his life in, on or around the Mississippi River. Through the years, he noticed the environmental condition of the river was deteriorating due to an abundance of trash that seemed to be everywhere. And in 1997, Pregracke began a crusade to clean up the river.

Chad Pregracke: "I just looked on a map, you know, and I, like, I think I'm going to do from St. Louis to Guttenberg, Iowa. That's kind of how it was and then it turned out that would be the largest clean-up in the history of the Mississippi River. Great, whatever."

During high school and college, Pregracke worked as a barge hand and a commercial fisherman and shell diver. Searching for mussels on the river's murky bottom, he claims to have bumped into microwave ovens and propane tanks. By night, he and his brother would camp out on one of the many islands dotting the majestic waterway, pitching their tents among old tires and discarded appliances.

Chad Pregracke: "I didn't really think of it as anything but just a bunch of garbage out there and I just wanted to do something about it."

During the summer of 1997, Pregracke single-handedly removed 45,000 pounds of junk from a 100-mile stretch of the river. But he soon realized that cleaning 900 miles of shoreline would require more than the time he could devote. It would take money. So, he approached some of the largest companies in the Quad Cities area.

Pregracke: "I thought well, 'Alcoa begins with an A. I'll start there.' I just looked in the phone book and called up and was like, 'Who is your top guy there?' That type of deal, you know. Now, knowing what I know, there's no way I'd get a meeting with anybody like him, but for some reason, he's like, 'Well, do you have a budget?' I'm like, budget? What's a budget? To make a long story short, the budget was a lot more than what he was able to give. He's like, 'Go back out and raise the rest of the money.' This is my first person I went to. And I'm like, 'Oh yeah, I'll be back on Thursday with the rest of it, you know, no problem.' One-hundred-fifty calls later everybody was just like, 'No, no, no, no,' you know..."

But Pregracke stayed the course. Armed with an infectious smile and undaunted enthusiasm for his cause, he solicited other donors. In the years that followed, Cargill, O'Doul's, Caterpillar, and Honda Marine all came on-board with Alcoa. The corporate sponsorship, along with private donations, provides Pregracke's Living Lands and Waters Project" an annual budget of half-a-million dollars... enough to keep a full-time crew of nine and a flotilla of vessels running smoothly.

Erik Wilson: "When you're talking 40 million people drinking the water from the Mississippi River, that's the key. It's not in your drinking water any more and it's going to another place that's a little safer for all of us. So that, to me, makes me rest assured that my kids or my grandkids are going to have a cleaner river. So, that's important to me to know."

Easier said than done.

Wilson: "I can't move around in here."

The Mississippi mud needs plenty of convincing before it loosens its grasp on long-held steel drums and rusty metal sheeting.

Pregracke: "We've found bodies, we've found prosthetic legs, we've found dead horses' heads in coolers... just all sorts of crazy stuff. You never know what you're going to find and it kind of makes it fun, you know."

While many people are merely curious about Pregracke's efforts, others are compelled to pitch in. And as Pregracke and crew make their way down the river, other volunteers help turn one man's trash into the treasure of these would-be pirates.

Pregracke: "When Saturday comes, you know, we have a hundred people out here; fourteen boats. We pick up all the stuff we can so we can leave on the barge Sunday morning so we can get down to the next town and start doing it all over again."

While the task is monumental, the numbers reveal that the Living Land and Water project is making a major dent in the problem.

All told, more than 800 tons of trash have been hoisted from the watersheds. Pregracke's inventory of salvaged items includes more than 8,000 tires, over 2,000 55-gallon drums, a 1955 International pick-up truck and the list goes on and on. At last count, enough trash had been rescued to fill several old barges and a couple of pages on Pregracke's Web site.

Pregracke: "Garbage is the least of the problems associated with the river. It's like the lowest on the list.

"But it was something that I could do. I could see that refrigerator, I could go, I could bang it apart with a sledgehammer and then I could grab it and I could throw it on my boat. It wouldn't be there anymore."

Rather than blame any single constituency for pollution, Pregracke claims everyone is a stakeholder in the health of America's waterways. Last June, the crew spent a day in central Iowa plucking trash from the Des Moines River -- a tributary of the Mississippi. Sponsored by the Metro Waste Authority, the effort brought together more than 200 rural and urban volunteers to call attention to the plight of the river and begin it's clean-up. The event was called Watershed U. and Tom Hadden was its organizer.

Tom Hadden: "I think there's a tendency for the finger pointing or people say, 'It's all a rural issue, we can't do anything about it,' but we can. I mean, we have an impact on our own environment so we want people to become aware. In the urban setting there's many things we can do to improve it and maybe that will also show the rural counterparts that we're willing to do what we need to do and not just point fingers at them."

In 2002, Pregracke accepted the Jefferson Award in the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The prestigious award is America's version of the Nobel Prize for Public Service. But Chad deflects all hero talk.

Pregracke: "What kind of keeps me going out there is like when it's hot and the mosquitoes are just nailing you so bad, you know, sometimes we're in water up to here, that type of deal, is really thinking like 'Hey, I'm not getting my head blown off or something, shot at, you know. My life is not in jeopardy.'"

But America's rivers are in jeopardy. So Pregracke has launched restoration projects in the Illinois, Missouri and Ohio watersheds. He also plans to meander his way into the nation's capital, where Pregracke hopes to reveal the ever-widening channel between rhetoric and results.

Pregracke: "To tell you the truth, even if I won the lottery, you know what, if I won the lottery, I'd have a little bit better equipment but other than that there isn't anything else I would rather do."

For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.


Tags: conservation ecology Illinois Mississippi River news rivers trash water water quality