SOUTHERN INDIANA — For about two decades, collecting garbage along the Ohio River has been an annual tradition for Travis Elble and his family.
On Saturday morning, they went out to the New Albany riverside as usual to do their part in cleaning the environment in Southern Indiana.
"It's just a maintenance thing," Elble said. "It's not going to save the world, but if you do a little bit at a time one day a year, it seems appropriate."
Elble is the Floyd County coordinator for the Ohio River Sweep, a multi-state volunteer event to clean up the banks of the Ohio River. The event took place in several Southern Indiana locations Saturday, including the New Albany Riverfront Amphitheater in Floyd County and Charlestown State Park, Ashland Park and the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clark County.
The Ohio River Sweep is organized by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, and it spans more than 100 locations across six states. Elble said many people have been coming to the event year after year, and it's like a family reunion to see them once a year. As of about 1 p.m. Saturday, he had seen about 45 volunteers in New Albany.
His kids have attended the Ohio River Sweep for their entire lives, including his oldest daughter, who is now 21.
Elble first became involved when he was organizing a cleanup of Silver Creek. He soon learned about the annual Ohio River event, so his group of volunteers decided to pick up litter at both locations that day. Before long, he became the coordinator for the Ohio River Sweep in Floyd County.
He said he has seen noticeable improvements to the banks in New Albany over the years of the cleanup. He said the addition of the Ohio River Greenway has helped limit access for illegal dumping of waste into the river.
"People use the [Ohio River Greenway] so much that now you can't really sneak down and back your truck up and dump it into the river." Elble said. "The Greenway's actually been a really big help for keeping it clean. That being said, it does also cause so many more people using this park, so there's more like litter in the park than there used to be."
The first year that he was involved, volunteers were finding items such as refrigerators, portable toilets and car doors, he said. He calls the cleanup of the large objects "big game hunting."
"Usually the biggest things we find now are occasional barrels and tires," he said. "People will still throw tires, but not like they used to. They used to be a really normal thing."
Elble said volunteers typically find large amounts of shoes and soda bottles. He will often see bait containers left by those fishing on the river, and some of the more unusual items volunteers have found include vials of blood from a veterinary office. He typically finds some salvageable items, including a heavy duty garbage can and a folding chair from the 2009 Ohio River Sweep that he used at Saturday's event.
He said people who enjoy the outdoors for recreational purposes such as fishing, hiking and biking are often the ones who show up at the Ohio River Sweep. He is a fisherman himself, so he understands the importance of protecting the riverside.
The Ohio River Sweep also coincides with Floyd County's Stormwater Awareness Week. Chris Moore, Floyd County stormwater coordinator, said the volunteer event is the final "hurrah" at the end of the week.
"It's just making people aware that the trash that you throw out can end up in our waterways, streets and streams and such," he said. "Anything that we can do to try to help clean up and be more mindful of the stuff that gets thrown out, anything we can do there I think is a positive for all of us — not just Southern Indiana, but the whole Ohio River basin here."
Louisville resident Clayton Hill said he often sees trash all over the place in the area, so came to the New Albany riverside Saturday to clean up litter. It was his first time participating in the Ohio River Sweep. He collected items such as a plastic Dr. Pepper container, a fire extinguisher, a plastic crate, styrofoam, plastic bottles and a can of brake fluid.
"It's sort of sad seeing how everything accumulates, especially after a flood when everything gets washed up onshore," he said. "It's nice to get out and clean everything up. I think it's a great program that they do, and it's also great that it's not only in the Kentucky-Louisville area, but it goes all the way up the river, and lots of communities get involved, which is what we've got to do if we're going to make any sort of lasting impact."