Going on 17 years working to clean up the nation’s rivers, streams and lakes, Chad Pregracke and his team of nearly 70,000 volunteers have removed more than 7 million pounds of garbage out of the nation’s rivers. It was this mission to serve the environment that brought Pregracke to Ohio State’s campus on Tuesday.
The OSU Environmental Professionals Network hosted Pregracke, founder of Living Lands & Waters and CNN’s 2013 Hero of the Year, Tuesday morning at the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center to discuss his river cleanup initiative.
Pregracke founded LL&W at the age of 23 after becoming increasingly disturbed by the amount of trash located in the Mississippi River. According to his website, Pregracke “decided that if no one else was going to do something to combat this growing problem, he would.”
“The mission is pretty simple: cleaning up the nation’s rivers, one river and one piece of garbage at a time,” Pregracke said in his speech. “When I say cleaning up garbage, I am not saying just picking up pop cans, but seeing the things like thousands upon thousands of disregarded barrels, tires, appliances, cars, trucks and tops of school busses. That’s what got me into helping clean up America’s rivers.”
When talking about working to clean up the Illinois River, Pregracke said he almost quit. After seven months of endless barrels and used condoms, he was ready to throw in the towel. He was out of money, and the entire crew besides himself and one other person had quit.
“It was the most disgusting thing, and I broke down to the point where I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” Pregracke said. “Then I got to thinking about all of the people who had thanked me, and thinking about change and making a difference. It might be small in the grand scheme of things, but it’s tangible and you can see it.”
Pregracke said that at the end of the day, river clean-up is hard work, but that’s what it takes.
“The biggest thing is just the act of getting out there and doing it,” Pregracke said.
The program was part of the EPN’s monthly breakfast club, which takes place on Tuesday mornings and is free for OSU students, said David Hanselmann, EPN Coordinator and lecturer in the School of Environment and Natural Resources.
“The programs feature high-profile, timely presenters and topics, and always provide for discussion with attendees — averaging over 120 people each month,” Hanselmann said in an interview with The Lantern. “This program also provides a great networking opportunity for OSU students, faculty and staff.”
Hanselmann said it is important for OSU and the EPN to have speakers like Pregracke address students.
“Find an issue or problem that is important and motivates you and excites you, then try to tackle it,” Hanselmann said. “If you’re motivated and excited about dealing with it, you will find that other people are as well and you can see change all because of your personal concern about something, either environmental or social.”
Nick Doarn, a third-year in environmental science who was seeing Pregracke speak for the second time, echoed Hanselmann’s thoughts.
“I thought Chad was a really entertaining speaker,” Doarn said. “I think it speaks a lot to his character how he was able to find something he thought was really interesting and attack it. It’s a good story for the students who came out today to follow what they think is important and not worry so much about money.”
One thing is clear: Pregracke has no plan to stop what he has started.
“I’ve been doing this 17 years and truthfully I feel like I am just getting started,” Pregracke said. “For you college students, I started this while I was in college. What I hope you take away from this is finding what you want to do and making it happen. Hard work will take you where you need to go.”
Looking ahead, Pregracke has big plans for Ohioans, as he plans to remove 1 million pounds of garbage from the Ohio River.
“That’s where I’m going to be,” Pregracke said. “And that’s what we are going to do, just this year alone. Typically we get about 300,000 pounds, so we are going to triple what we normally do.”