Fishing for discarded vehicles and scrap in America’s watersClick to Enlarge - A Living Lands & Water crew cuts up an old vehicle that washed up during a flood. Cars and trucks can accumulate along riverbanks. Organizations are needed to clean up and recover the material.
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Unfortunately, rivers, riverbanks, lakes, swamps and flood plains across the country have been a traditional and convenient, though illegal, dumping ground for all types of vehicles and automotive parts, primarily old tires and rims. Much of this practice has been curtailed through environmental education and stiff fines, but there remain tens of thousands of old, rusting vehicles and parts yet to be recovered and recycled.

However, the great clean up of American rivers and wetlands is well underway and recovering lots of autos, scrap metals and trash. This relatively recent phenomenon began to gain public interest in the mid 1960s. It became more serious in 1973 with the formation of American Rivers, which has grown to become the leading conservation organization that supports healthy rivers for the benefit of people, wildlife and nature. Today, American Rivers has offices in Washington, DC and around the country with more than 65,000 members and supporters.

A primary step in undoing the damage of the past is cleaning out man-made debris from rivers, streams and wetlands – old cars, trucks, even school buses being the largest-sized culprits. It’s a dirty, hard job, mostly being done by groups of volunteers across the country. Each year they are recovering thousands of tons of ferrous and nonferrous metals, rubber, glass and plastics.  

American Rivers is also a sponsor of the National River Cleanup, the most successful stream clean up program in the country. It is a year-long event that taps into the civic pride of tens of thousands of volunteers across the country. Since its launch by America Outdoors in 1991, more than 900,000 volunteers have participated in thousands of clean ups across the country, covering more than 162,000 miles of waterways. These clean ups have removed more than 8.7 million pounds of litter and debris from rivers and streams. National River Cleanup 2009 was the most successful year to date, with more organizers and clean ups than ever before.

The United States has more than 250,000 rivers that stretch over more than 3.5 million miles. Unfortunately, nearly 40 percent of the rivers and streams are too polluted for fishing and swimming, and 30 percent of native freshwater fish species in North America are threatened or endangered. Rivers have been dredged and channeled for navigation, dammed up for hydroelectricity, recreation and water supplies, and polluted by untreated sewage and chemical effluents. In addition, more than 50 percent of wetlands have been lost over the past century.

Old engine blocks, car frames and mufflers are purged from rivers during floods.

Many government, private organizations and volunteer groups are working to remedy these problems, primarily because of wide recognition that clean water and a healthy ecosystem are critical to everyone’s best long term interests.

Bob Brischetto, PhD and clean up coordinator for the Medina River Protection Fund of Lakehills, Texas said, “This last year we collected $500 worth of metals that we removed from the river. We do it once a year in May and about 250 people show up to help out. We pulled out cars and a 20-foot horse trailer and had to cut them up with torches. We removed a lot of metal. We had a local guy, Dave Cox, who comes in with his crew and equipment and separates the metals. He claims the scrap value to compensate for his expenses. We may rethink that. Next year we may try to get volunteers to recycle the metals so the money goes back into the non-profit fund.”

For the past 10 years, Brischetto’s group has cleaned up a 50-mile stretch of the Media River, which runs into the San Antonio River. “It’s mostly a rural area. There are only two bridges that cross the river in our area so we don’t get a lot of cans, bottles and trash. When we have heavy rains, floods wash whole homes and sheds, mobile homes and metal roof materials into the river. We also recover a lot of discarded barbed wire. We removed a car that was in two parts and a lot of metal decks. We have to rely on the cooperation of farmers and ranchers along the river. Last year, we had a farmer bring his front-end loader to help remove a refrigerator. One year we removed seven refrigerators. It’s an annual battle to keep things out of the river that get washed down.”

Rough separation of tires, metals and trash takes place aboard Living Lands & Waters barges.

Brischetto reported that it costs between $1,500 and $2,000 to hold the river clean up every year. That pays for a barbeque for all the participants and t-shirts. Everything else is contributed by local citizens, businesses, the state and American Rivers.

When it comes to big river clean ups like on the Mississippi, Ohio and the Missouri, the most impressive group is Living Lands & Water (LL&W), a 501c3 environmental organization established in 1998 by Chad Pregracke in East Moline, Illinois. Since its founding. LL&W has hosted 421 clean ups in 14 states with 55,471 volunteers collecting 6,102,000 pounds of garbage along 16 rivers, including tons of metals.

Geoff Manis, crew leader at LL&W, who has been working rivers since 2004, told us about collecting scrap metal and how it helps underwrite the clean up effort. “The power of hydraulics is incredible. When a river floods it picks up objects. It does not matter what it is or how heavy, it takes it down river. When the water drops down it usually winds up leaning against a tree or in a logjam. There are hundreds and hundreds of islands on the Mississippi River and that’s where a lot of it ends up, right at the head and tail of the island. We recover lots and lots of cars and metals that are washed out of rivers during floods that wind up on banks, flood plains, or snagged on islands.”

“About 90 percent of the vehicles we are picking up are 20, 30 and 40 years old. We recover vehicles and metals that the average scrapper can’t get to because of where they are located.”

LL&W uses 30-foot aluminum Jon Boats powered by 135 hp outboards to harvest metals and trash. Each boat can haul up 7,000 pounds of material.

After being purged from the river, 99 percent of scrap metal and other trash is taken offland. Crews use steel saws and acetylene torches to dismantle some objects, but it is mostly hand labor loading boats. “We find hundreds of steel 55-gallon drums. We’ve cut up sunken barges, a lot of steel cables from the marine industry, a circa 1960s school bus, dozens of cars and all kinds of weird dimensional steel,” Manis reported.

Appliances are a large segment of LL&W recovery. “We have found thousands of refrigerators. On the Ohio River in a 2-mile stretch, we found over 100 refrigerators. In many communities, where recycling programs are not as good as others, it costs money for people to get rid of appliances, tires and rims. Rather than pay out of their own pockets they will throw them in a creek or in the river valley and they get carried off down river during floods.” Occasionally, LL&W finds refrigerators floating down river and muscles them into a boat.

Manis said they recover tens of thousands of tires and rims. “We fill our barges up with tires two or three times a year, half of which have rims from cars, trucks, tractors and semis.”

The list of items recovered from rivers by LL&W in 2009 is truly mind-boggling. A few examples: 58,102 tires, 842 refrigerators, 1,169 propane tanks, 5,285 55-gallon drums, 18 tractors, 8,024 feet of barge cable and 54 messages in a bottle.

“I would say that metals account for 50 to 60 percent of the weight we pick up. There are huge amounts of Styrofoam, too. We could fill an airport runway probably three or four times over, two feet thick with it. In my estimation, we’ve picked up millions of plastic bottles and steel and aluminum cans.”

From the Jon Boats, crews transfer metals and trash onto several 35 x 50-foot barges owned by LL&W. One barge contains living quarters for a fulltime paid staff of about a dozen people as well as a classroom for training programs. On average, this barge flotilla covers a seven state area during a year, performing both staff and volunteer clean ups and conducting educational events.

Another barge is equipped with a crane to lift material from the Jon Boats onto other barges, where it is separated for landfilling or to be sold for recycling. Metals go into one pile for further separation at a scrap metal yard. Two or three times per year, full barge-loads of metals are floated to riverside scrap metal facilities and unloaded by crane. “Shortly after that, a check is sent by the scrap dealer to our office,” said Manis.

The primary source of annual funding for Living Lands and Waters comes from the barge line industry and dozens of other corporations such as ADM, Cargill, John Deere, Caterpillar and Budweiser. “The value we get from the scrap metals is a pretty big drop in the bucket, but by no means keeps us afloat. The value of the scrap metal, however, seriously helps fund our activities,” Manis commented. “Personally, I don’t care what the value is of the scrap metals. I just don’t want it in the river or in the creeks and valleys.”

Last year, LL&W held 92 days of workshops and 205 educational outreach programs with 1,685 teachers, 7,272 students and 22,443 community members. Through LL&W’s MillionTrees project and river bottom restoration efforts, 54,474 trees were planted in 5 states, invasive plants were removed from 21 acres of land, and 475,000 acorns were planted in LL&W’s Beardstown nursery. LL&W also recruited 110 volunteers to care for 281 miles of riverfront as part of its Mississippi and Illinois Adopt-A-River programs.

Many scrap metal companies around the country work with river clean up organizations, not just to obtain metals, but to demonstrate the industry’s commitment to a healthy environment and the key role that recycling plays in it. Recycling metals from river clean up programs can help offset the costs of holding volunteer events. It also presents an interesting opportunity for more scrap metal people to get involved in a worthwhile effort.