Reasons to Spend Your Leisure Time Collecting Trash

The weekend had arrived. My audio project was complete. After over a week of manic, late night editing, a weight had finally fallen off my shoulders.

So, my next decision was this: how should I possibly spend these precious days of relative ease? What can I do to unwind before we hit the ground running with our video projects?

I could have gone for a hike, checked out a local concert, or simply spent my whole weekend sleeping (I honestly could have done that). But instead, Birgit (my host for the summer) enticed me to do something entirely different: she asked me help her collect trash.

Yes, I honestly set my alarm for 7:00am on a Saturday to go pick up trash. How could I ever agree to this, you might ask? On my one weekend of freedom?

First of all, Birgit is very convincing. But it wasn’t just that—there’s actually an organization in Portland that makes trash collection a fun, recreational activity. I’m not lying.

This Saturday, the Columbia Slough Watershed Council coordinated with Next Adventure to help folks get out onto kayaks and into the slough to help clean it up! So, basically you get to paddle around, chat with new people, and enjoy the wildlife—while also stopping along the way to pick up trash and debris.

And it turns out a lot of people were just as interested as Birgit and I. We launched at Kelly Point with about twenty other people. On top of that, the council had organized five different access points where other groups of volunteers were also spending their morning kayaking the slough.

In addition to being able to chat and discuss local issues with the other volunteers, I also got to enjoy the presence of two eagles, an owl, a heron, and a curious turtle. It was a happy day.

But the most interesting (and bittersweet) part of this was the sheer volume of trash we all collected. When we returned to land, everyone’s kayaks and canoes were overflowing. A few people had larger objects they were towing along behind them. It felt productive to have collected so much, but it also made me wonder—why is there so much trash here in the first place?

As with a lot of issues in Portland, some of this seems to circle back to the housing crisis. There are many people camping and fishing along the slough because they literally have nowhere else to go, nothing else to eat—and nowhere else to leave their trash. It’s not a choice, it’s not laziness or lack of care: it’s because a lot of these people have no other option right now, largely due to lack of avenues for support coming from the city of Portland.

As we packed up our kayaks and said our goodbyes, some of the other volunteers began to vocalize the same issue I had been considering all day. A few folks talked about ways in which environmental advocates might partner with organizations supporting the houseless community. It’s all still a brainstorm, but I appreciate that we ended our Saturday with some fresh ideas.

Anybody who is interested in tackling these problems, joining these conversations, and supporting a good cause should definitely check out the Watershed Council—they are a great group!

—Madi Stapleton