Project for Clean Up a River!

The Basic Steps

Step 1: Plan Your Cleanup

Choose a Site

First, look for an area where there is a lot of litter (sadly, all too easy to find). Second, walk at least a stretch of the area to see how accessible it is for a group cleanup effort. Tips for choosing a site can be found in the Helpful Hints section of this guide.

If you need help finding a cleanup site, please contact a local watershed association or outfitter, or American Rivers at

Choose a Day and Time

Weekends are normally best for river cleanups. You should pick a date at least a month in advance so you have time to prepare and recruit. The length of cleanup is up to you – a few hours, a half-day, or an all-day event with lunch.

If you choose an all-day event, ask a local restaurant or grocery store to sponsor it by donating lunch and snacks for participants.

Get Permission from the Land Manager

Public or private land, you’ll need permission for your cleanup. If it isn’t clear who owns or manages the land, call your county auditor or land title office.

It’s usually easy to get permission for a cleanup on public land. Ask if the agency wants to help sponsor the event by providing trash bags or disposal.

With private landowners, focus on the positives of your cleanup. Explain that you want to improve the environment and participants will be respectful of the property. You can also mention that the cleanup is part of American Rivers National River Cleanup Program, a nationwide effort to beautify streams across the country.

Arrange for Trash and Recycling Removal

Start with Your Local Waste Management Company:

  • Tell them about your project and explain that it’s a volunteer community service effort.
  • Ask if they want to sponsor the effort by hauling away the garbage for free or at a discounted price.
  • Ask about proper disposal of special/hazardous materials (see below).

If They Say "No," Recruit Volunteers with Pickup Trucks:

  • Learn the location of the nearest dump and recycling center.
  • Make sure your drivers understand the time commitment to properly dispose of everything.

Register your Cleanup with American Rivers

Go to and register your cleanup. You can search the directory for easy-to-use maps of cleanup sites.

Register your cleanup four weeks in advance with American Rivers to receive organizing kits with materials such as trash bags, T-shirts and snacks!

Step 2: Recruit

You want to recruit lots of volunteers for your cleanup. The more people you have, the greater your impact! To recruit, consider:

  • Asking friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, community groups, local scout troops and environmental organizations to get involved
  • Reaching out to outfitters to post your event at their store
  • Asking canoe/kayak clubs to hand out flyers to their members
  • Enlisting boat owners to join your team and pick up litter further out in the depths of the water
  • Posting your event on Create the Good

Step 3: Spread the Word

Promote the cleanup in your community. It might inspire others to join or start a project of their own! You can spread the word by:

  • Posting flyers at your local library or community center, or talking about your event on your community listserv
  • Getting news coverage of your event -- Call or email local reporters in advance and let them know about the cleanup. Tell them about the event and your group’s motivations. Draft a press release with the help of the American Rivers’ communication staff (You can email them at: A template release can also be found in the Tools section of this guide.
  • Involving a local VIP -- Call the mayor, your congressional representatives, or others who might attract a crowd. Ask them to appear, or even join your cleanup; it is good publicity for them and for you. Make sure to nail down a specific time with their schedulers and provide whatever details they need.

Measure your positive impact – track how many items you collect. Send the results and photos to volunteers after the event!

Step 4: Cleanup Day!

Before you leave home

  • Check water levels to make sure it’s still safe for volunteers!
  • Look at the weather for the day. If heavy rain or severe weather is forecasted, you should postpone your cleanup.
  • Fully charge your cell phone before leaving home! Volunteers, reporters, VIPs and vendors may need to reach you throughout the day.
  • Prepare remarks to kick off the event as well as to conclude the day.

Set up

  • Arrive at least an hour before the scheduled start time and bring a few friends to help set up.
  • Post directional signs for the event so participants can easily locate it.
  • Check to make sure the area is safe, and there aren’t any hazards.
  • Look for a safe place for people who will be helping from boats put-in and take-out.
  • Set up a check-in station, with media and volunteer sign-in sheets. Make sure you have each participant sign an acknowledgement-of-risk statement upon check-in (sample form can be found in the Tools section of this guide). And for precaution, it’s worth collecting participants’ cell numbers too.
  • Establish a base of operations, near your check-in area, with:
  • Water and other refreshments
  • Extra pairs of sturdy work gloves, in various sizes
  • First aid and safety
  • Trash bags and cleanup supplies
  • Life jackets, and perhaps extra paddles, for boaters
  • Flyers, fact sheets, “health” status of the river and any other information relevant to your effort
  • If you are collecting both trash and recyclables, make sure each volunteer has a bag for each. This will save time at the end of the day.
  • If you are using a commercial trash collector, or having catering, please call ahead to confirm they will arrive on time.

Kick off your cleanup!

  • Provide brief remarks to get your event off to a good start.
  • Acknowledge and thank VIPs in attendance and give them a chance to say a few words
  • Greet and thank VIPS when they arrive and introduce them to cleanup leaders and volunteers
  • Make sure you know when they are scheduled to leave so you can properly send them off
  • Talk about the importance of the river and helping the environment
  • Emphasize safety!
  • Outline what people shouldn’t pick up (leaky batteries, chemical containers, sharp items). If folks come across these items, they should notify a cleanup supervisor.
  • Go over the schedule for the day
  • Identify the cleanup supervisors and provide their cell phone numbers for quick access
  • Make sure everyone has a map of the area and knows where to focus

Go to the American Rivers website, click “Report the Results of Your Cleanup,” and the National River Cleanup will post your cleanup statistics!

Step 5: Wrap Up

At the end of the cleanup, be sure:

  • To separate all the trash from recycling (steel, aluminum, plastics, glass, etc.). Pay attention for materials that might need special disposal.
  • To organize the identified commercial waste disposal service or volunteers with pickup trucks to haul all the materials.
  • All your volunteers check out. Use the same sheet you used for check-in.

Step 6: Celebrate and Say Thanks!


When your cleanup is finished, it’s time to celebrate! Have a picnic, cookout or lunch for volunteers, or if you’re all too tired and dirty, invite people to a celebratory event on another day!

Say thanks

Follow up with volunteers after the event to say thanks again for making the cleanup a success.

If you had any civic leaders, VIPs or reporters attend, send a formal thank you note with photos of your event and stats about your cleanup. This is a great gesture that might be helpful in engaging them for future events. This may also be helpful in starting a discussion about political action on river and stream protection!

Step 7: Inspire others on!


Visit for a wide range of opportunities to use your life experience, skills and passions to benefit your community.