Environmental group picking up tons of trash along the Illinois River

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — A Quad-Cities based environmental group is currently docked in Peoria to do a cleanup of great magnitude.

Living Lands and Waters is out on the Illinois River picking up trash all along the banks and in the water. By the time they are finished with this project, they will have picked up nearly 25 tons of trash just in a few weeks.

“If you see a bunch of flat-bottom boats out there full of garbage, we’re just here to clean up and leave the place better than when we got here,” said Living Lands and Waters’ President/Founder Chad Pregracke.

Pregracke started LL&W 23 years ago with just one boat. Now, he and his team of 10 are making a dent in the fight against trash in rivers across the U.S.

“Over the years we’ve been able to remove almost 11 million pounds since we started,” Pregracke said.

His fleet has really grown since he started in 1997.

“We have five barges here, two towboats, and six 30-foot work boats. We fan out with the work boats, go different places, and bring it all back to throw on the barges,” Pregracke said.

Tires.

Dolls.

Propane tanks.

Anything you can imagine in a store, Chad and his team have probably found floating in the water. Cleaning up a river 273 miles long like the Illinois can seem like a daunting task.

But Rachel Loomis is helping teach kids the importance of keeping our planet clean.

“It really connects with them in their everyday life and makes them reflect on how can they reduce this plastic pollution problem in our world,” said Loomis, the Education Coordinator of Living Lands and Waters.

Caterpillar, ADM, and Cargill are all sponsors which keep the education programs running. CAT was the organizations’ first sponsor, they started sponsoring LL&W back in 1999.

While COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the in-person operations, Loomis says they’re still connecting with kids via Zoom.

“We are still hosting education workshops through online. Sometimes when it’s specifically with a classroom in Peoria or Quad Cities. I did one with kids in St. Louis,” Loomis said.

Usually the workshops would be in-person on the barges. There is enough room within the barge for about 40 students to come in and learn.

“They come out on our barge, see our setup, we talk to them a little bit about the trash we collect and most importantly we educate them,” Loomis said. “Students can come into this classroom and we teach them about water quality, macro-invertebrate identification, invasive species, and of course all the garbage we’re cleaning up out here.”

Loomis says cleaning the rivers is so important because of how they impact the water we use in our everyday lives.

“That’s where a lot of people are getting their water source from, right on the river here. It’s really important for us to make those simple connections that this is where you’re getting your water source from,” Loomis said. “With chemicals, pesticides, the chemicals in plastic for example, so when we’re able to bring not only students out here that might be sixth graders or seniors in high schools, but also those adults in the community it’s really important for us to connect people to the community and that’s the biggest thing is their water source.”

Pregracke’s team also has worked with more than 110,000 volunteers. He says he’s just trying to make the world a better place one piece of trash at a time.

“In a lot of ways just trying to leave your mark and everywhere you go, just try to make a difference for the positive. Ya know, that’s what it’s kinda all about,” Pregracke said.

A lot of times when they’re getting trash, they get it from back in the flooded woods along the rivers. Pregracke says when they get trash in the rivers, it stops it from being able to go into the oceans.

He adds while the river is flooded now, him and his team are still able to successfully clean up tons of trash.

“Most people would think when the water is high, it makes it so where you cannot clean up the river, but in a lot of ways it helps us out because we can drive right through the flooded timber and pull out the refrigerators, barrels, and everything else you see on the barge. After the big floods last year, we’re back focusing on a lot of the damage done from that,” Pregracke said.

Pregracke says him and his team have to work hard to clean up the rivers they work on.

“Most of the trash is picked out of the river by muscle power. We use our 30-foot flat-bottom boats to drive and pull it up, fill those boats, come over to the barge, unload it onto the barge, and then everything is sorted out for recycling. We do anywhere from 85-95 percent of everything we bring in is recycled,” Pregracke added.

Pregracke says his passion to clean the river is the river itself.

“I was a commercial shell diver and that’s how I got into this. I started working on the Illinois River, specifically Peoria Lake when I was 16-years-old. This is a beautiful river. I spent a lot of time here on the Illinois River and the Mississippi. Both rivers are places that are beautiful and shouldn’t be trashed,” Pregracke said.

But cleaning rivers isn’t all Pregracke and his team do, they also help plant trees around the Peoria Area.

“I’ve done a lot of planting trees with the Peoria area and the Peoria Park District,” Pregracke said.

Loomis says one of her favorite parts of living on the barge 6-9 months out of the year is getting to travel and experience new places.

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