River Cleanup

A community based initiative aiming to clean and maintain local rivers

5 Step Guide to

River Cleanup


River Cleanup "With 3 million miles of rivers in the United States, many of us live within a mile of a river or stream. Unfortunately, each year millions of tons of trash end up in our nation's rivers. Trash is more than just an eyesore. It's harmful to wildlife and contaminates rivers, which provide 60 percent of our drinking water. Join American Rivers' National River Cleanup® to help our waters clean and healthy for people and wildlife. National River Cleanup® provides guidance and support like free trash bags, to anyone interested in hosting a cleanup for their local river. Start planning your cleanup today!" - Madeline Bule, National River Cleanup® Manager, American Rivers

5 Steps

Who? Someone who...

Resource Checklist


You will need at least 2 hours weekly in the weeks leading up to the cleanup to organise a community river cleanup.

Select a river and set a date and time

Selecting the right location is important. You should consider the number of volunteers, convenience and accessibility of the cleanup location, and size of the cleanup.

When selecting your site:
  • Find a heavily littered area.
  • Stay away from areas that have existing or potential safety hazards such as chemical containers or steep or unstable banks.
  • Walk the area to see how accessible it is for a. group cleanup effort. Find a good spot for your check-in station where volunteers will check in and obtain supplies and a place for your wrap-up celebration. Try to stay away from busy roads or areas difficult for your volunteers to access.
  • Be sensitive to the ecosystem. Plan a cleanup near mass transportation, or make sure there is suitable parking and encourage carpooling.
  • Decide if you will conduct a cleanup along the shoreline, in boats or both. If your group will be boating—identify safe “put in” and “take out” locations
  • Consider the size of the site. If the site is large, identify smaller sites within the location which can be managed by individual team leaders.
  • Determine who will be participating. If your event will be family friendly, pay special attention to proximity to roadways, bridges or other areas where children might be particularly vulnerable.
  • Ensure restroom availibility

Before making any definite plans, determine whether the land is public or private, and if you’ll need permission to host your cleanup. Often a quick internet search will give you this information. If it is not clear who owns or manages the land, call your county auditor or land title office.

Federal agencies, like the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service, or state parks often manage public land. When asking for permission to use the land, also ask for donations of supplies, disposal services and/or publicity.

When discussing the cleanup with private landowners, focus on the positives. Explain that you want to improve the environment and participants will be respectful of the property. If you start by registering with American Rivers, you can also mention that the cleanup is part of American Rivers’ National River Cleanup program, a nationwide effort to beautify rivers across the country

Registration with American Rivers

After you have determined the date and time of your event, register to add it to our online map of cleanups nationwide. This will allow people to find and participate in your cleanup. (Events can also be marked private.) In addition, events that are registered four weeks before their date will receive free trash bags and other day-of materials.

Recruit Volunteers

The more people at your event, the greater your impact can be.

Who Can Help?

Anyone and everyone. Most volunteers should expect to be able to walk and/or boat along a riverbank or beach and pick up litter, however there are many jobs that do not require significant physical activity. These include handing out supplies, on-site registration, organizing lunch, and volunteer outreach. Encourage everyone, regardless of ability or age, to participate in the manner in which they feel most comfortable.

Start promoting the cleanup in your community by:
  • Posting fliers on all local community boards. Look for them at libraries, grocery stores, coffee shops, high schools, dorms, etc. Reaching out to all types of retail outlets to post your event information in their store.
  • Contact your local farmers market and ask for permission to sign-up volunteers for your cleanup during market hours.
  • Asking friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, community groups, local scout troops, schools, and environmental organizations to get involved.
  • Asking outdoors clubs such as hiking, bird watching, climbing, paddling, to get involved and spread the word to their members.
  • Enlisting boat owners to join your team and pick up litter further out in the depths of the water.
  • Post a cleanup “blurb” on area online calendar of events, daily newspapers, free weeklies, neighborhood listserves and city blogs. Be aware that these deadlines vary.

When you register with American Rivers your cleanup will be posted on the interactive National River Cleanup map, given its very own online volunteer registration webpage where your cleanup information will be posted, volunteers in your area can register for your event, and you can communicate with registered volunteers.

Community Sponsors

One way to gain publicity in the community and reduce the cost of a river cleanup is to partner with local businesses to sponsor your river cleanup. Your area outfitter shop might be an obvious first choice but there are ways for all types of businesses in town to get involved. Sponsorship can range from financial gifts to a wide variety of in-kind donations including donating boats for the event, purchasing t-shirts, providing cleanup supplies like gloves, providing lunch or refreshments for volunteers, or helping to cover the costs of waste removal and disposal. Your local business can benefit from the publicity they will receive at the event and they can provide their employees with the opportunity to register and volunteer at your cleanup.

Offer to place the sponsor’s logo on your flier and be sure to thank them for their support on the day of your cleanup!

Publicize your cleanup

Garnering media attention can be very beneficial to your cleanup, especially as you prepare to engage the community. Media attention will help raise awareness as well as draw additional volunteers.

As you plan media your outreach campaign, here are some things to keep in mind:
  • American Rivers provides a press release template which you can customize and e-mail
  • to reporters and bloggers who may cover your event. Visit www.AmericanRivers.org/Cleanup to download a press release template. If you have an event web page or Facebook page, include a link to your event.
  • Invite reporters and bloggers to attend the event.
  • Mention any sponsors and/or politicians who may be attending.
  • Encourage your attendees to post information about your event on their social networks, and encourage live posting or tweeting during the event.
  • Keep copies of all media you receive. You’ll be able to use them the following year to help secure sponsorships and encourage elected officials to participate.

Invite elected officials

Inviting elected officials is a great way to draw attention to the river and highlight its importance to your community. Visit www.AmericanRivers.org/Cleanup to download a sample invitation.
  • Invite the mayor, your congressional representatives, or others who might attract a crowd to speak briefly during your opening remarks and introduction and/or to join the cleanup.
  • Make sure to nail down a specific time with their schedulers and provide whatever details they need.
  • Be sure to include in your press release if a member of Congress, government or an elected official plans to attend your cleanup. You can work with the official’s press office, as well as get help from American Rivers.

Plan to celebrate

Offering lunch during or after your event is a great way to thank your volunteers and build camaraderie. If you choose to include lunch at your event, ask a local restaurant or grocery store to sponsor. your cleanup by donating lunch and snacks for participants. We encourage you to work with restaurants that support local farmers, which reduces your carbon footprint. If you’re not able to supply food, but still wish to provide a lunch experience, encourage volunteers to bring a bagged lunch.

Prepare waste disposal

Free trash bags from American Rivers will be delivered at least two weeks before your event if registered four weeks in advance. If you do not need trash bags from American Rivers, please still register with American Rivers and share your cleanup data.

Trash Collection

At least 4 weeks in advance of your cleanup, contact your local waste management company. Tell them about your project and explain that it’s a volunteer community service effort.

Ask your contact:
  • If the company would be willing to sponsor the effort by hauling away the garbage for free or at a discounted price.
  • What the proper disposal and cost of special/hazardous materials like batteries, tires, or chemical containers is.
  • If they recycle. If they do not, reach out to local recycling haulers as well.

Cleanup Day

Supply checklist

  • Trash Bags - Regular trash bags are provided by American Rivers if you register four weeks in advance. Trash Bags for recyclable items will need to be purchased locally or donated.
  • Gloves - Volunteers can bring their own, or local groups or businesses may donate. It is a good idea to have a few extra pairs the day of the event. American Rivers recommends gloves with a plastic or rubber coated palm for safety and easy gripping when wet.
  • Liability Waiver - Bring as many copies as there are expected volunteers
  • Trash Grabbers (optional) - Some volunteers find plastic trash pickers or “grabbers” helpful in reaching difficult areas, and to prevent excessive bending and stooping. Avoid the steel-tipped, piercing variety if children are present.
  • Empty laundry detergent container to be used as a “sharps” container
  • First Aid Kit - It is imperative to have a First Aid Kit at all volunteer events. They can be purchased cheaply at any drugstore. It’s also helpful to identify any members of your group who may have first aid, CPR or first responder training.
  • Reflectors or vests (optional)
  • Table for volunteer check-in and supplies
  • Volunteer sign-in sheet - check resources section

What should volunteers bring

    Clothes that can get dirty or wet Sturdy shoes (no sandals or flip-flops) Long pants or high boots to avoid scratches Sunscreen Insect repellent Hand sanitizer

Before you leave for the cleanup site

  • Check the weather for the day and the water levels to make sure it is still safe for volunteers.
  • Make sure you have everything from your checklist.
  • Fully charge your cell phone. Volunteers, reporters, VIPs and vendors may need to reach you throughout the day.
  • Confirm the location/arrival of food and supplies.
  • Confirm the arrival of trash collectors and caterers.

Arrival and Set-up

  • Arrive at least one hour before the scheduled start time. Plan ahead to have a few volunteers meet you there to help set up. Post directional signs for the event.
  • Set up a check-in table with volunteer sign-in sheets.
  • Have each participant sign a liability waiver as they arrive.
  • If you are collecting both trash and recyclables, make sure each volunteer has a bag for each.
  • Take a final look for potential safety hazards. Block off areas as necessary.
  • Station volunteer(s) at the put in and take out area(s) to assist boaters (if applicable).
  • Take before pictures so you can see the results of all your hard work!

Cleanup Kickoff

Opening remarks are a great way thank everybody that is involved and to get your volunteers excited. This is also the time to provide direction and any final safety tips. You're now ready to kick off your. community river cleanup! Be sure to take plenty of photos and videos and enjoy the day!