Cincinnati Family Magazine

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April 13, 2024

Photos by ORSANCO Ohio River Sweep

The Ohio River Sweep

The Ohio River Sweep, an annual volunteer cleanup that extends the entire length of the Ohio River, has merged from a one-day to full season event, March through October. Their mission is to remove the greatest amount of litter possible in the Ohio River, and you can help!

Solving the litter crisis is an overwhelming and daunting task, but there is something each of us can do in a short amount of time that would make a widespread impact. Imagine spending time outside with family, friends, and people in your community connecting with nature, building relationships, and together serving a common goal to protect one of our region’s most valuable resources – the Ohio River. There’s something to be said about the grit of a hard day’s work and a strong sense of accomplishment knowing you contribute to making the world a better place – and here’s how you can do it.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) is an interstate agency that collectively works together to improve water quality in the Ohio River Basin, ensuring the river can be used for drinking, industrial supplies, and recreational purposes, as well as supporting a healthy and diverse aquatic habitat. Each year, ORSANCO manages an annual Ohio River Sweep program that is one of the oldest and largest cleanup events in the area. Since 1989, their effort has extended the entire length of the Ohio River, from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to Cairo, Illinois and includes hundreds of volunteers from each state along the Ohio River shoreline and many of its tributaries. Historically, the program was offered as a one day event; now it’s transitioned to a seasonal format facilitated through ORSANCO’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Foundation for Ohio River Education (FORE). The Ohio River Sweep season runs from March through October, which gives participants the flexibility of planning their own event anytime during that time frame or signing up for one of the many scheduled public events.

The Ohio River flows through or borders six states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The Ohio River is 981 miles (1582 km) long, starting at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and ending in Cairo, Illinois, where it flows into the Mississippi River. More than 30 million people live in the Ohio River Basin, and the Ohio River is a source of drinking water for more than five million people. The average depth of the Ohio River is approximately 24 feet and supports a diverse aquatic habitat, including 160 species of fish. ORSANCO Executive Director, Richard Harrison, shares his belief.

“It’s important for everyone in the Ohio River Basin to remember we are all a part of this watershed, and by working together, these types of cleanup events have a major impact on the global issue of litter pollution,” he says.

Harrison is inspired by the camaraderie gained when collaborating with local communities to improve the quality of the Ohio River watershed.

“It creates a connection and sense of belonging to a local purpose with global impact. The immense issue of litter in our waterways is overwhelming, but each volunteer contribution is valuable and truly makes a difference!” he continues. 

Plastic bottles and tires are the most common items found during the cleanup events. More unusual items that have been found over the years include a class ring (Metropolis, IL) that was later turned over to its owner; a wedding dress (Jefferson County, OH); a phone booth (Pittsburgh, PA); an un-cashed check for $55,000 (Oldham County, KY); and various appliances and furniture. In all, more than 100,000 tons of trash and debris have been collected since the first Ohio River Sweep event in 1989, and the volunteers since that time have made tremendous progress cleaning the Ohio River. However, litter continues to be a global problem. ORSANCO Technical Programs Manager, Ryan Argo, explains that any foreign object can have a negative impact on our waterways by altering habitats, leaching toxins, or entangling wildlife.

“Of increasing concern in worldwide waterways are microplastics, which are small particles of plastic material that can be ingested by wildlife causing deleterious effects,” says Argo.

Microplastic particles can be found in industrial and household products or created as larger plastic waste breaks down.

“By removing larger plastic waste before it has a chance to degrade, volunteers assist in limiting the amount of microplastics affecting the Ohio River and the abundant diversity of wildlife it supports,” Argo continues.

By removing this waste, volunteers help ensure the continued health of the Ohio River and the vast array of life it supports. The goal is to support as many cleanup events as possible along the Ohio River main stem and its tributaries in order to remove the greatest amount of litter possible.

The Ohio River Sweep program is fueled by the generosity of its volunteers, sponsors, and partner agencies; they are the heartbeat of the program, and without them, the multitude of cleanup efforts throughout the entire Ohio River wastershed would cease to exist. Families, communities, and organizations are all welcome to participate! Cleanup events typically last 3 – 4 hours, and each location receives free trash bags, gloves, and event T-shirts for all volunteers. Anyone over 18 is welcome to organize an event, and all interested student groups are welcome to participate with adult supervision.

Do you have a favorite stream or spot along the river? Each group can pick their own location, or the ORSANCO team can help find a spot with the support of local coordinators within the Ohio River Sweep network. Our volunteers make a tremendous impact, and we are proud of their service and dedication to keeping our river clean. This year, approximately 1,600 volunteers have participated at one or more of the 115 locations throughout the Ohio River basin – and there are still supplies available for cleanup events from now through – October. All it takes is changing our behavior and getting involved; together we can make a difference.

FORE teaches people of all ages in the Ohio River Basin to become environmental stewards through hands-on programs that get people on the water and engaged in preserving the cultural, ecological, and economic value of our rivers, and the Ohio River Sweep is an invaluable program that is designed to do just that.

Sponsored story by Annette Shumard, Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) Communications; Environmental Education Manager; 513-231-7719 ext. 115;

About the Author

Amanda Hayward

Amanda Hayward is editor of this publication. She is from Cincinnati, Ohio, and a mom of three with one on the way. If she's not writing for Cincinnati Family, you'll find her running, juggling kids, teaching group fitness classes and cooking up healthy recipes.