Friends of the Chicago River Reinvents Its Huge One-Day Cleanup As a Summer Challenge

Individual litter cleanup efforts will have to replace the Chicago River Day group event this year due to the coronavirus. (Courtesy Friends of the Chicago River)Individual litter cleanup efforts will have to replace the Chicago River Day group event this year due to the coronavirus. (Courtesy Friends of the Chicago River)

Chicago River Day, the annual cleanup that routinely marshals thousands of volunteers, started out as a handful of people taking it upon themselves to pick up trash in and around the Chicago River.

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With large events now banned due to the coronavirus pandemic, River Day is returning to its scrappier, less centralized roots, Friends of the Chicago River has announced.

On Saturday, the date originally scheduled for the 28th cleanup, the organization is instead launching the My Chicago River Day Summer Challenge.

The formerly one-day group event, focused on the river, has been reinvented as a monthslong individual campaign against litter, with the summer challenge encouraging people to pick up trash in their neighborhoods. 

“We are not sending anybody out in canoes” or to parks or forest preserves, said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River.

The organization is taking its cue from its partners, including the Chicago Park District and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which have been discouraging programming in natural areas in order to ensure proper social distancing. 

So is it still River Day without the river? 

Here’s the message Friends of the Chicago River hopes connects with Chicagoans: “The litter in your street is one rainstorm from being litter in our water,” said Frisbie. “We have endless storm drains connected to the river. Or a plastic bag can blow into the river.”

The litter in your street is one rainstorm or gust of wind away from winding up in the river. (Evan Garcia / WTTW News)The litter in your street is one rainstorm or gust of wind away from winding up in the river. (Evan Garcia / WTTW News)

The organization is hosting a kickoff and volunteer training event at 10:30 a.m. Saturday via Zoom. (Click here to register.)

Participants will be given a tutorial on how to safely pick up litter — the basics are: wear gloves, use a bucket and grabber — and will learn how to share their experience with others. Among the interactive components created by Friends of the Chicago River is a mapping tool that allows people to upload photos of their trash haul and location.

“We expect people will find weird things,” said Frisbie, whose bar is admittedly set pretty high, having pulled everything from picnic tables to coconuts out of the river.

On the second and fourth Saturday of every month through Sept. 19, the organization will also provide online educational programming tied to the river, including chats about the waterway’s history and its wildlife. 

As the summer progresses, it’s possible that small groups of volunteers could converge on the river, but for now, virtual gatherings will have to suffice, and that reality is something Friends of the Chicago River has struggled with, acknowledged Frisbie, who couldn’t help but give Saturday’s sunny, cleanup-friendly forecast a wistful glance.

“Our organization is really oriented to bringing people together,” she said. “There’s this feeling of a real loss of personal connection.”

But the pandemic has also reinforced the organization’s mission, Frisbie said.

“These (natural) resources are really valuable. We know we need to be able to get outside,” she said. “Making our open spaces better is more important than many people realized.”

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]


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