Sailing Away on a Garbage Boat

The Adopt-a-River garbage boat, on display outside the Minnesota DNR office on Warner Ave. in St. Paul.

Come sail away and we will see the muddy river that leads to the sea. Across the water, we’ll slowly float on the one and only garbage boat.Hidden beneath the opaque waters of the Mississippi River a silent junkyard rests. Each year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources mobilizes thousands of volunteers through the Adopt-a-River Program to clean up garbage in and along the shorelines of the Mississippi and other rivers. During the first clean-up event, held in 1988 at Lilydale Regional Park in St. Paul, volunteers collected over 80 tons of debris. Since 1994, the Adopt-a-River Program has commissioned artists to create sculptures from the refuse collected during each year’s river cleanups and these sculptures are exhibited at the Minnesota State Fair each summer, causing passersby to wonder, “Who would ever put that in a river?”

The problem with a watershed is that things don’t stay put. Put simply, water flows downhill, and on its way, it carries many things in its path. A watershed is a one-way street, directing water from the high points on the land to the low points. In developed areas, storm sewer pipes beneath the streets carry water from rain and melting snow directly to nearby lakes and rivers. Anything on the land at the top of a watershed – dirt, sand, salt, fertilizer, pesticide, oil, bacteria and garbage – can eventually travel downstream to pollute lakes, streams and rivers lower in the watershed.

Undoubtedly, some of the larger pieces of garbage that have been hauled from the Mississippi River arrived there in a dramatic fashion, but most litter takes a more mundane route to the water’s edge. A cigarette butt is thrown from a car window and lands on the road. From there it washes into the storm sewer when it rains and travels quickly to the river, where it eventually nestles down into the soft muck of the river bottom. Wind blows plastic bottles off the tops of overflowing garbage cans and carries away newspapers left on the ground

Take a tour of the Mississippi River sometime after a rainstorm and you’ll likely find floating bottles, cans, cigarette butts and more. Washed off of parking lots, roads and sidewalks and into city storm drains, the garbage is in the Mississippi today and in the Gulf of Mexico next week. During beach clean-ups organized by the Ocean Conservancy last year, volunteers collected 72 barbeque grills, 64 umbrellas, 139 televisions, 195 cell phones, 155 toilet seats, 203 bicycles, 271 shopping carts, 9,531 fireworks, and 1,879 band-aids. They also found “enough food packaging to get takeout for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for the next 858 years.” (

The 2012 Adopt-a-River trash sculpture is currently on display outside the Minnesota DNR office on Warner Ave. near the Mississippi River. The sailboat of garbage rests gently on the lawn like so many other Minnesota boats hauled onto dry land for the winter. The green and clear plastic bottles that form the sail glisten in the sun, while a string of rubber flip-flops dangles from the mast. The figure is grotesque, yet beautiful all at once.

You can help to make this summer’s Adopt-a-River sculpture smaller by picking up garbage from your sidewalk, street and yard when the snow starts to melt this spring. Spend an extra five minutes to scoop up and throw away all the salt, sand and gunk that has accumulated along the curb line during the winter to keep that dirty mix out of our rivers and lakes as well.

Without your help to clear the roads of littered trash and soil’s decay, the rains will come and wash them clean and the garbage boat will sail away.