One bag at a time: Students free Richland Creek from a tangle of trash

When droves of Haywood Community College wildlife and forestry students scrambled down the banks of Richland Creek last weekend with trash bags in hand, they knew it would be hard to top last year’s famed refuse recovery.

An old moonshine still, probably a few decades old, had washed down the mountain still partially intact and lodged in the creek.

“There was even a bottle that still had material in it, too,” said Shannon Rabby, HCC Fish and Wildlife Management instructor.

But an hour into the creek cleanup in Waynesville last Saturday, and nothing quite that exciting had emerged so far.

“Mostly newspapers, cups, cans, plastic bags, any kind of trash that shouldn’t be in the stream,” said Corey Grabley, 28, a wildlife student at HCC from Brevard.

The workday was part of the statewide Big Sweep, where communities from the coast to the mountains descend on their local creeks, rivers and lakes to pick trash from the water and banks.

“Trash begets trash. The cleaner it is the less likely people are to throw out more trash,” Rabby said of the Haywood Big Sweep. “We brought out 2,000 pounds last year and will probably come back this year with another 2,000 pounds.”

By day’s end, however, the group had netted a record amount of trash, coming in at 3,280 pounds.

Most of the trash being fished out doesn’t decompose — plastic, Styrofoam, glass and aluminum — so it’s hard to imagine just how litter-strewn Richland Creek would be if not for the annual volunteer day.

Some of the trash is clearly a result of people intentionally tossing their garbage to the curb or out the window. But much of it has far more innocent origins. It’s that plastic bag that blew away in the parking lot, or the water bottle that fell out of your car door and rolled down the driveway when you weren’t looking, eventually making its way to the storm drain down the street and then, ultimately, into Richland Creek.

“There’s a lot of trash that washes off the parking lots and stuff into the creek,” said Dustin Robinson, 22, a fish and wildlife student at HCC from Hendersonville. “Most of it is just people being careless, and when the rain comes it just washes it down into the creek.”

Robinson spent the morning slogging through the knee-deep water in old tennis shoes.

“It is pretty cold,” he admitted.

More than five dozen volunteers tackled the Big Sweep in Waynesville despite a drizzly, not-so-warm morning.

“If you think about it, the weather shouldn’t really stop you. You may be a little cold but you are fixing the planet that you live on,” said Patrick Allen, 16, a student at Haywood Early College.

“The trash isn’t going to just pick itself up,” added Lindsey Hires, 16.

Volunteers split into groups and were dispatched to different stretches of Richland Creek, ultimately scouring the banks from downtown Waynesville to the mouth of Lake Junaluska. Wildlife and forestry students at HCC were out in force as organizers of the cleanup, but several community members pitched in as well.

Cecelia Rhoden, 17, saw a flyer calling for volunteers on a bulletin board at HCC where she attends Haywood Early College.

“It feels pretty awesome knowing that we can do something that doesn’t even really matter how young we are,” Rhoden said. “You can’t always buy organic food or buy the recycled products, but this is something that costs absolutely nothing but your time, that you can come out and do for free.”

“I think this is the one thing teenagers can do that adults can do as well, but teenagers can join in without being taken over by adults,” said Allen.

Plus, they were more than willing to get a little dirty — slip sliding down creek banks and rummaging through the underbrush — and were equally undaunted by thorns or poison ivy.

“We are crawling under things and in things,” Allen said.

Allen, Rhoden and Hires got a bit more than they bargained for, however, after being assigned the stretch of creek under the Russ Avenue bridge. A small homeless population in Waynesville lives under the bridge, and the kids were surprised to find sleeping bags and other clear signs of human occupation — along with copious volumes of bottles and cans.

“We got about 80 to 100 glass bottles,” Rhoden said.

Since the kids were bent on recycling what they could, they emptied the contents of beer and liquor bottles and separated them from the rest of their trash finds.

“If you don’t recycle, you aren’t fixing the problem. You are just putting it somewhere else,” said Rhoden.

As for this year’s prized find?

“No liquor still this year… but one student found a large coconut,” Rabby said.


The Big Sweep in your neck of the woods

It’s not to late to join in. The Big Sweep is still coming up in several counties.

• Jackson County is set for Oct. 1; James Jackson, Tuckaseegee Outfitters, 828.508.3377.

• Macon County also is Oct. 1; meet at Gooder Grafix on East Main Street in Franklin at 9 a.m.; Guy Gooder, 828.421.4845.

• Swain County has two Big Sweeps, on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2. Nantahala River put in at 11 a.m. on Oct. 1 or shuttle from the Nantahala Outdoor Center. On Oct. 2, volunteers meet at the Swain County Administration Building at 9 a.m.; Laurie McLaren Perkins, 828.488.9735.

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