Lake cleanup organizers shift tactics amid pandemic, erosion, high water

Environmentalists who organize lake and river cleanups in West Michigan are fine-tuning their tactics in the wake of high-water levels and the coronavirus pandemic.

Volunteers for cleanups along the Lake Michigan shoreline must be aware of erosion dangers such as dune collapses and falling trees.
The water levels are affecting the location of waterfront cleanups, threatening the safety of volunteers, and making the task of picking up trash more difficult.

The pandemic has forced organizers to both reschedule cleanups and rework the pick-up process.

Brittany Goode, sales associate for Aldea Coffee in Grand Haven and Muskegon, says locations for cleanups co-sponsored by the business are shifting in step with waterfront erosion. Some traditional cleanup sites are inaccessible or more challenging to access.

Safety concerns

Access issues are compounded by safety concerns for volunteers, reports Kathy Evans, environmental program manager for Muskegon-based West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission.

She says volunteers who pick up trash, especially along the Lake Michigan shoreline, have to be aware of dangers such as dune collapses and falling trees. In addition, storm-whipped waves have tossed nail-plastered building materials from damaged homes and stairways onto beachfronts.

“The volunteers have to be very cautious when dealing with these larger items and because of active dune erosion,” Evans says.

Debris and vegetation

On top of access and safety concerns, cleanup organizers have to inform volunteers that water levels will make their jobs harder because debris is mixed with vegetation.

Waterfront erosion is tossing building materials onto beachfronts.
“Floating sticks and grasses create clumps with trash, making it much harder to pick up,” Goode says.

The water levels add a second degree of difficulty when cleaning up trash, according to Tyrone Dobson, senior volunteer engagement manager for Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Higher water levels trap trash for longer periods of time, allowing the litter to break down into smaller, hard-to-retrieve pieces.

“We typically think of trash in terms of refrigerators and tires. But in reality, we usually find smaller pieces of trash, and 90% of that is plastic. All trash is equal, regardless of the size,” says Dobson, whose organization is well-known in West Michigan for its support of Adopt-A-Beach Cleanups.


Dobson says the viral pandemic creates yet another obstacle for waterfront cleanups.  

The threat of the virus has compelled the Alliance for the Great Lakes to alert cleanup organizers about the necessity of altering schedules and methods for pick-up events.
Brittany Goode, of Grand Haven-based Aldea Coffee, picked up 35 pounds of trash around the company's roastery in Muskegon Heights in May during a modified Earth Day Beach Cleanup. (Courtesy of Aldea Coffee)

Many spring cleanups were postponed because pandemic restrictions limit the size of social gatherings. For the foreseeable future, cleanup volunteers will be asked to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

Creative measures

However, some cleanup organizers are adopting creative measures in an effort to maintain the spirit of the spring cleanups.

Aldea Coffee went ahead with its co-sponsorship of an annual Earth Day Beach Cleanup in May by urging individuals to clean up their “nearby beach, street, park, backyard or anywhere your walking feet desire” in exchange for prizes. Goode says more than 100 bags of trash were collected during the modified event. 

She says the business believes it is crucial to “find ways to remain socially united, despite practicing social distancing.”

Goode, Dobson, and Evans shared their thoughts on the impact of high-water levels and the pandemic during a webinar roundtable hosted by the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum in Grand Rapids.

Despite new barriers to waterfront cleanups, the three organizers say they are enthusiastically looking forward to events planned for the remainder of this year and beyond.

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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