Chad Pregracke lives on a barge. His life’s work is to clean up the Mississippi River
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How do I know? Over 15 years ago, my friend Gary and I canoed the Mississippi River, beginning at its humble source in Lake Itasca, Minnesota. At first, perfect beauty greeted us until we hit the first homes and towns along the river. From there, bottles, cans, plastic bags, plastic containers, cars, sofas, tires, machinery, paper, cups, used diapers and hundreds of other pieces of trash passed by my eyes. We carried two large plastic trash bags and filled them every day. We dumped them at trashcans in the small towns we passed along the way.
At the end, I wrote a commentary asking the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press to engage civic leaders, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, high schools, Rotary and Lions clubs to form teams to clean up Old Man River. I asked them to consider a 10-cent deposit-return law for all soda pop, beer and liqueur bottles like Michigan's successful law.
Last week, my preacher spoke about the Herculean efforts of Chad Pregracke on his quest to clean up the Mississippi River one piece of trash at a time. Americans along the river toss their debris one piece at a time and Pregracke intends to pick it up "one piece at a time." Pregracke ran into the same roadblocks with his efforts to engage government and civic clubs: they ignored him.
"At the age of 17, he started making calls to government agencies to notify them of the problem, assuming someone would take care of it. Year after year passed by and the problem only worsened. In 1997 Chad decided that, if no one else was going to clean up the river, he would."
Since 1998, Chad engaged 60,000 volunteers to retrieve 6,000,000 (million) pounds of trash of every description. He expanded his work to the Ohio and other rivers.
On his website: "Chad's vision, charisma, non-stop work ethic and natural leadership garnered him an abundance of awards and honors over the years. Most notably, Chad was the recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, America's version of the Nobel Prize, in June 2002. Chad accepted this award in the United States Supreme Court in Washington D.C. with other award recipients: Rudolph Giuliani, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Lilly Tartikoff."
Chad's teams picked up 13 football fields worth of one-foot thick Styrofoam; 8,800 feet of barge cables; 1,095 chairs; 19,700 balls; 63 250-gallon drums; 83,900 bags of trash; 5,800 55-gallon drums and thousands of other articles tossed by mindless Americans. The list runs down the page like a ticker-tape parade of embarrassment.
This brings up the most important point: we Americans must begin to clean up our country "upstream" by changing ourselves from a "throw-away" society to a "recycling-return" society. All the cleanups in the world won't solve the core problem: millions of Americans tossing their containers and trash.
We need to help Chad expand his work into the "deposit-return" container laws like the State of Michigan. We need to transform from plastic bags use to cotton bag use. It's evident that millions of Americans don't care where they toss their trash. Economic incentives change that behavior very effectively. Michigan's rivers, lakes and roadways remain pristine because an army of kids scours the landscape for 10-cent return containers.
If you're the kind of person who cares about North America's environment and beauty, sign on with Chad Pregracke's team. Start your own team in your own city or state. Expand your powers by forming groups that create change. Model your work after Chad's work. He will help you.
Finally, where you engage your heart, you infuse your life with energy, purpose and passion. Follow Chad's lead and become a leader in your state, city and community. Your efforts will give the Mighty Mississippi a chance to run clean again along with all the other rivers in America. In the process, you will preserve Tom Sawyer, Jim and Huckleberry Finn's legacy.
"Rivers flow not past, but through us; tingling, vibrating, exciting every cell and fiber in our bodies, making them sing and glide."~~ John Muir