Armed with trash bags and grabber tools, a team of volunteers from Georgia Aquarium set out on a rainy Saturday to remove trash from local spots within the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. The effort was part of Sweep the Hooch day, hosted by nonprofit organization Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. The annual event removed more than 57 tons of trash in its first seven years. This year marked its eighth year.
“I was motivated to participate because I live right on the Chattahoochee,” said Rayanna Seid, a maintenance diver with the Aquarium. “My dog and I venture almost daily to the different spots along it. I wanted to give back to an area that provided me an outdoor outlet and good memories.”
“The area we cleaned is home to river otters, beavers and countless other species,” observed Peter Mawhinney, coordinator of dolphin dive operations. “Seeing them with that much trash in their habitat is disheartening.”
Julie Nguyen, volunteer and intern coordinator at Georgia Aquarium, organized the team of Aquarium participants and said it wasn’t difficult to get volunteers. “A lot of the people who work at Georgia Aquarium are so passionate about our community and about giving back, and that’s why we work at a nonprofit. Giving back is such a big part of us.”
All the volunteers were surprised at the amount of trash they encountered. “My coworker and I ventured off from the group and we picked up six bags of trash just between the two of us. I was in shock, especially with there being trash cans along most of the route,” Seid noted.
Some of the trash was what you’d expect — cans, bottles, tennis balls, takeout containers, cigarette butts, dog toys, plastic grocery bags. Some of it was not. “Someone pulled a mattress out of a river bank,” said Nguyen. Members of the youth volunteer program dug a tire out of the sand. (It took five people.)
In an area popular with fisherman, discarded fishing line was everywhere — and it wasn’t easy to remove. “I always knew that fishing line was an issue,” said Nguyen. “It’s clear, so animals and fish don’t see it. Actually experiencing it and getting caught up in it, imagining being a squirrel or deer or dog and getting caught up in it, it was so impactful for us.”
All told, the 960 volunteers at this year’s event, including 15 Georgia Aquarium staff members and additional volunteers from the Aquarium’s youth and military volunteer programs, pulled more than 21 tons of trash from the Chattahoochee River.
"You see our direct impact,” said Nguyen. “That’s why I wanted to organize an event like this for our Georgia Aquarium staff. We talk about conservation. We have to practice what we preach.”
Nguyen is hoping to plan a bigger event next year, and at least one participant is already excited about it. “When I left I felt like I had only given back a small fraction of what the Chattahoochee River area had given me,” Seid explained. “I am looking forward to the next event.”
Seid said Sweep the Hooch day inspired her to clean paths as she hikes with her dog, and she wasn’t the only volunteer inspired to act. “Now I’ll keep a little trash bag with me whenever I go to parks,” said Kailen Gilde, an environmental analyst in the Water Quality Lab. “You don’t have to wait for a river sweep to make a difference!”
Nguyen hopes everyone will follow suit. “It’s such a small part of our day and such a big part of who we are as people on this planet to make sure we leave this a better place than we found it.”