These Boats Are Free, If You Use Them To Pick Up Trash On The Anacostia River A new DC program provides free boats from Kingman Island for those willing to pick up trash on the Anacostia River.
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These Boats Are Free, If You Use Them To Pick Up Trash On The Anacostia River

You can hit the water for free in these boats, as long as you bring back some trash. Lee Cain/Living Classrooms hide caption

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Lee Cain/Living Classrooms

The Swedish trend of picking up trash while jogging, known as plogging, has been around for a few years now. So you'd expect enthusiasts to be on the lookout for the next big thing when it comes to combining exercise with environmental cleanup.

Now, D.C. is launching a Green Boats program. Residents can check out a kayak or canoe for free–if they use it to paddle the Anacostia River while collecting trash. Call it planoeing? Or playaking? (The "pl" in plogging comes from the Swedish "plocka upp," or pick up.)

The idea for the Green Boats program is, like plogging, a European import.

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"I was at a climate conference meeting in Copenhagen," says Tommy Wells, director of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE). While there, he noticed the green kayaks plying the city's waterways. "They had a bucket in them or kind of a trash bin, and they would have trash pickers, and people would take them out and just pick out trash out of their harbor. I thought that was a great idea."

D.C.'s new program is launching on Earth Day, with boats available every Saturday through the end of August at Kingman Island, near RFK stadium. Boats can be booked online.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the new program at an Earth Day event today on Kingman Island. "Today, the future 51st state is proud to celebrate the 51st Earth Day," said Bowser in a statement ahead of the event. "In a year when many are looking to maximize their time outside, the Green Boat program gives Washingtonians one more way to have fun while also helping to clean and restore the Anacostia River."

The Anacostia River has long been known as one of the most polluted rivers in the country, and is considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be impaired by trash, sediment, nutrients, and toxic chemicals, including PCBs. But all that is slowly changing, with billions of dollars in local and federal money being spent on cleanup efforts, including major projects to keep sewage out of the water and to remediate sediment on the river bottom left by decades of industrial pollution.

"Our river is getting much cleaner," says Wells. "People are coming back to the river, and we strongly believe in equity and inclusion, that the river be accessible to everyone, no matter which side of the river you live on."

Wells says he hopes to expand access to the river in the future beyond the Green Boats program, with a large fleet of free rental boats. "What our hope is, is that we get enough canoes and kayaks so that D.C. residents can check out a boat just like they would a book from our public libraries and then bring it back."

The Green Boats program is run by the non-profit Living Classrooms, with a $30,000 grant from the DOEE. Doug Siglin, managing director of Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region, says one aim of the project is to get more people on the water from the predominantly Black neighborhoods bordering the river.

"Folks we talked to say that often they don't get a lot of chance to to canoe or to kayak. And there's a great deal of interest in not only doing that for fun and recreation, but also to help clean up and improve the rivers in the eastern part of D.C."

Lee Cain, who manages Kingman Island with Living Classrooms, says organizers have tried to make the program as low-barrier as possible, so people can participate who have little or no experience on the water. Organizers are reaching out to community associations, schools, churches and other neighborhood groups to recruit boaters.

Cain says some potential participants worry about safety on the water. But he says participants don't even need to know how to swim (life preservers are provided). "I've been canoeing for 20 or 30 years, and I still don't really know how to swim," says Cain. "When I get in the water I dog paddle."

The program is run by staffers and volunteers who are certified American Canoe Association instructors, with safety and first aid training.

According to Wells, the Anacostia is a great place to learn to kayak or canoe. "Frankly, the Anacostia River is one of the safest rivers in America for in terms of drowning and such," says Wells. The Anacostia tends to be calm, even on stormy days, with shallow, slow-flowing waters. "The Potomac is far faster-flowing, far deeper. It can be a little bit more of a challenge," Wells says.

The program in Copenhagen, called GreenKayak, started in 2017 with just 3 boats, and has since spread from Denmark to Germany, Sweden, Norway and Ireland. According to the organization, 3,000 volunteer boaters collected 10 tons of trash in the first two years of the program.

In D.C., organizers say they don't know how much trash will be collected, but they believe it's the first program of its kind in the U.S. Participants will be asked to help sort litter they bring in after their trip in order to help the city document what exactly is polluting the waterway.

Lee Cain says he hopes the boating program will open more people's eyes to the beauty of the oft-maligned Anacostia River. "We want people to have experiences in nature in the city," says Cain. "It's everywhere."

This story is from, the local news website of WAMU.

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