The breakfast biscuits were a hit Saturday morning as dozens of volunteers launched boats to aid in river cleanup along the Town Common. But when someone called out “Want some coffee?” there were no takers. That’s because the Keurig he was holding had just been pulled from the river.
The coffee maker was not the only eye-opening discovery at the Splash for Trash Tar River Cleanup. The second annual event, hosted by Greenville Noon Rotary, yielded an odd assortment of objects, from barrels to a bicycle and a broken door frame to a rusted satellite dish.
“You would be amazed at the stuff we pull out of the river,” Rotary member Steve Callendar said. “Last year we brought in a couch.
“We find some surprising things in there,” he said. “But we’re trying to get it cleaned up.”
Nearly 70 volunteers turned out for the three-hour paddle-and-pickup event, which covered about an eight-mile area. Among them were Mark and Andrea Pike, who joined a similar effort on their first wedding anniversary, getting into a boat — and eventually tipping it over.
On Saturday, nearly two decades later, they made a second attempt, this time bringing along daughters Aurea and Ellie, ages 9 and 6.
Greenville Noon Rotary launched its cleanup project in 2018, a year after member John Person helped lead an effort to persuade the city’s Recreation and Parks Department to reopen the boat ramp at the Town Common, which had been closed to motorized and trailered boats.
Person thought a river cleanup would be an ideal project for Rotary, which has embraced the cause of clean water on an international scale.
In addition to Rotarians, the cleanup effort drew kayakers, college students and environmental advocates. A handful of volunteers, including Angela Holloman and Hue Le, were “walk-ons” who approached the Rotary tent out of curiosity and ended up lending a hand.
“I couldn’t believe how much we picked up,” Holloman said after returning to the boat ramp with a load of plastic and other debris, including golf balls and a milk crate.
“It’s hard to know with what came out (of the river) whether to brag about it or be embarrassed by it,” Hunt McKinnon, vice chairman of Friends of the Greenville Greenways (FROGGS), said as he stood next to piles of garbage stacked on the shore.
McKinnon, who missed last year’s inaugural Splash for Trash, said on a recent visit to the Appalachian Trail he collected only two pieces of trash on a 4-mile hike. Exponentially more debris was pulled out of a four or five-mile stretch of river from the Town Common to Port Terminal.
Volunteer Newton Smith said the amount of trash he and his wife saw in the Tar River during a kayaking trip last year promoted him to write a letter to Mayor P.J. Connelly about the problem. He included pictures of plastic bottles and bags floating in the river.
“The water was the color of this dirt,” he said. “It was just nasty. There was stuff flushed out, I guess off the streets, 2-liter plastic bottles floating.”
Smith, who is not a member of Rotary, decided he wanted to be part of the solution by volunteering for Splash for Trash.
Volunteer Frank Fields has lived in Greenville for 25 years and enjoys boating and skiing on the Tar River. He brought his motor boat, The Other Line, to help shuttle supplies to volunteer kayakers and to collect trash that was weighing down their kayaks and row boats.
East Carolina University students Michaela Langley and Aliyah Dubose were on the verge of having their boat tip over under the weight of two chairs and a bicycle they had fished from the water when Fields arrived.
“All it takes is one of those big storms with a lot of wind and rain, and it (lawn furniture) blows over, or the river actually gets that high and it ends up in the river,” said Fields, whose daughters, Grace and Nora, were among the volunteer kayakers.
But wind and rain are only partly to blame for dumping debris in the river. Much of the trash does not come from homes and apartments along the river but begins farther away.
“It didn’t all get thrown in the river,” Fields said. “It started elsewhere with storm drains. All that storm water ends up here. It brings those bottles and trash with it.
“People do throw stuff in here, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “That Keurig didn’t blow out of somebody’s truck and float down the storm drains.”
It’s not likely that a tire, a propane tank, an upright freezer, battery charger or industrial fan — all found in the river on Saturday — floated down the storm drain either. Person hopes that Splash for Trash will be a wake-up call that leads to a decrease in both intentional dumping and careless littering.
“I think it really boils down to education,” he said. “It’s disheartening in the fact that there’s all this stuff in the river that doesn’t belong there. It’s sad. On the bright side, though, we’ve got almost 70 volunteers here that have spent their morning out on the river picking it up so that we can dispose of it properly.”