Volunteers make Red Clay cleanup a success03/29/2021 08:48PM ● By Steven Hoffman
For 27 years, the volunteers and supporters of the Red Clay Valley Association, now merged into the Brandywine Red Clay Alliance (BRCA), have joined to pick up trash throughout the watershed during a weekend in mid-March. This year, following months of worldwide setbacks and cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the leaders of this organization made the bold decision to move ahead with yet another cleanup on March 27.
“We feel a commitment to do it; it’s the reason we’re here,” BRCA executive director Jim Jordan said.
Still, it took a lot of planning and adjustments to conform to federal, state and local safety recommendations – and even exceed them. Jordan said he was up to the task.
Essentially, the planning involved keeping spaces between people, developing a non-contact way to distribute equipment and communicating instructions safely online ahead of time.
The spacing was a matter of numbers.
Jordan said there is usually a turnout of about 800 volunteers to gather up all those droppings along the stream and roadways. They come together in an almost festive atmosphere early on a March morning in several assembling locations to get their equipment bags, eat doughnuts and sip coffee.
This year, to maintain safe space, there was no big, early-morning get-together, nor were there doughnuts and coffee. In fact, Jordan said he lowered the registration limit to about 250 people, and those sign-ins, during which volunteers would pick up equipment and instructions, were spaced out to two parking lot locations.
He imposed rules for the pickup teams as well, insisting that the groups had to be 10 or less, and they had to be family groups or usual acquaintances that gathered together frequently, like scout troops. They were assigned separate half-mile stretches to pick up trash, safely away from other groups.
During the pick-up period, with other volunteers so far away as to be out of sight, one woman joked that she hoped she was not infringing on someone else’s trash.
Even the trucks that different businesses donated to pick up the haul afterwards had to be operated by safely related drivers.
The second challenge was to maintain the sanitation of the equipment.
Each volunteer was given a bag that included an event T-shirt, gloves, a bright safety vest, identification tape for recycling and instructions. They had to be clean.
Event leaders worked hard to make this a safe reality, stuffing individualized paper bags with the needed equipment. The volunteers were instructed to drive to one of two parking lot pick-up points (Nixon Park in Kennett Square or Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin), roll down their car windows and reach out to receive the bag. No one was permitted to get out of the car. The pickup times were even staggered to minimize the number of cars in one place at any one time.
As they gathered trash along the way, the volunteers put it in bags coded either for recycling (aluminum cans) or disposal. Then they placed the filled bags by the side of the road for truck pick-up later.
Getting instructions out to volunteers by email turned out to be the biggest and most difficult challenge.
Jordan sent out email letters to each participant ahead of time. Those emails included their service area, the rules of the game, their bag pickup time and the parking lot designated for them to obtain the bag.
Jordan said the process was tedious and took a long time preceding the weekend.
“On Thursday night, I didn’t go to bed at all,” he said.
And yet, by the time Saturday morning arrived, the bags were safely arranged with names and instructions stapled to the top and brimming inside with everything they needed to collect all that trash.
The Brandywine Valley Association was founded in 1945 as a conservation organization dedicated to clean water and ecological education. The Red Clay Valley Association followed shortly thereafter in 1952. Each association is dedicated to serving the watersheds of that particular creek.
In 2015 The two associations merged, inasmuch as they were governed out of the same facility and leadership at the Myrick Center on Route 842 in Pocopson and provided similar services for the two bodies of water that are closely connected.
The Brandywine Red Clay Alliance provides conservation projects, camps, concerts and education as well as a yearly point-to-point equine event.
In 1993 the Red Clay Valley Association started the yearly trash pickup project. Longtime RCVA board member Dave Myers said he recalls when they organized a collection of old newspapers piled up at Pennock Field in Kennett Township.
The cleanup this year covered 95 miles of waterways and adjacent roadways spanning lands from Kennett Square’s Nixon Park on the north to Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin, Del., in the south, and from Chandler Mill and Wollaston roads on the West to Route 52 on the east. That included a substantial length of Route 82 in both Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Each volunteer pickup group was assigned a half mile stretch for their work.
In previous years Jordan said they have accumulated about three Dumpsters full of trash. Given the lower numbers of people involved, it was less this year. He said that without an exact count, it looked as if they had gathered enough trash to fill about a Dumpster-and-a-half.
Asked if there were any unusual items picked up, Jordan said there was a large television, a toy plastic gun and plenty of discarded tires – some of them gigantic.
“It used to be we’d even find old washing machines and refrigerators,” he said. However, he added that in recent times there have been advances in recycling that relieve people of the desire to throw away old appliances in open forests or parks.
Commenting additionally on the diminished collection this year, Jordan said that 2020 had a lot of rain and flooding, and some refuse that often stays in the vegetation has been swooped downstream into rivers and the ocean.
After the event, he praised the volunteers – their work and their enthusiasm, and especially their adherence to the new rules for this unusual year.
“I’m humbled by the volunteers,” he said. “They did a bang-up job.”