Cowper Chadburn has always been interested in canoeing, kayaking and exploring new different places.
Several years ago, he realized that one of the problems he faces is that water access points tend to be on private land.
Chadburn said he spoke with landowners, who said the issues weren’t with allowing people to use the private areas, but with the litter they leave behind.
“It became a part of my practice when exploring new places just to pick up the litter around the access points, and it really grew from that,” he said. “The more I did it, the more I felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Through the years, his desire to clean up litter has turned into full-fledged trips to clean up large stretches of water including the Buffalo River, Cadron Creek, Benny Craig Park and others.
Chadburn, a member of the Arkansas Canoe Club, said he knew a conservation officer, who was also a club member, and went around picking up trash. For years, Chadburn did it as a tribute to his memory.
“I have a lot of fun doing it,” he said. “We get after things other people think they can’t get.”
Chadburn said that in 2017, the group pulled out 1,282 tires and 66,685 pounds of waste. So far this year, they have pulled out 490 tires and 21,000 pounds of waste.
He said they find a wide array of stuff including industrial tires, rain jackets, athletic balls, tents, Styrofoam, water bottles, boats and more.
Chadburn said an item that people don’t commonly think of is balloon releases and what happens after … they come down.
“Everybody understands that if you take a plastic cup [and] throw it down, you’re littering,” he said. “But, really, when you do the balloon thing, it’s no different than driving down the highway and throwing Walmart bags out of your window. The only difference is when you throw the [bag] out the window, you see it land right there.”
Chadburn said that although that's an accurat statement, it’s still not something someone wants to discuss with someone who has recently lost a loved one or is holding a memorial and has chosen a balloon release.
“So, are we going to see ducks disappear because someone released balloons -- no, there will be enough of them to survive,” he said. “But, it’ll be really horrible for the duck that does get caught.”
Of all the items they’ve retrieved, Chadburn said his favorites have been the several dumpsters they’ve pulled out and baby dolls caked in mud or, “creepy babies” they’ve found, which look “like something out of a horror movie.”
“People don’t fully understand this, but we actually have a lot of fun at it too,” he said. “It really becomes like a giant Easter egg hunt.”
Chadburn said they have to pause when they consider the underlying issue.
“We are losing the battle on litter,” he said.
Chadburn referenced Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit organization founded in 1953, and the Crying Indian public service campaign against littering.
“While those are good things, in the meantime, we’ve created one-use plastic bags, styrofoam cups [and] plastic water bottles,” he said.
Chadburn said with all the new types of litter, we, as a nation, are ultimately losing the war on litter, and at this point, it’s crucial to find a way to reduce the types of litter rather than just picking up what’s been dumped.
Another big issue that he said people are facing is the cost of disposing certain items, like tires, the right way with fees at landfills and dumps and fines for using private dumpsters higher than the ticket someone gets for littering.
“I think we really need to work to create a deposit system for tires,” Chadburn said.
He said he’s looked at other towns that taken on this issue from the perspective of need and have treated it like police protection.
“You can’t opt of police protection,” Chadburn said. “You’re going to pay your taxes and when you call the police, they’re going to come. I think we need to look at landfill and waste management in the same way. Everybody creates waste and we need to charge [for] that in the front end.”
He said the first priority is to look at systematic change instead of maintenance because at the end of a single clean up day — they average about 150 tires pulled on a good day — the cycle will continue the next day or so.
“The recognition that no matter how much I have fun doing it, it’s not really solving the problem and it’s not going to change,” Chadburn said, frustrated. “It makes me want to do things that would lead it to have longer-lasting effects that go beyond me.”
Despite how often overwhelming it may be, he said they enjoy doing it, being outdoors and on the water getting exercise and relaxing.
Chadburn said an added plus is when they can return the belongings to their rightful owner.
“That feels good,” he said. “People mistakenly think that it’s finders keepers, losers weepers and that’s not how the salvage law works. The salvage law has very specific things that you’re supposed to do to try to contact the original owners and give it back to them. You can charge them a salvage fee if you want to, but it does not become your property just because you pulled it out of the river. We try to honor that.”
To learn more about the salvage law visit, www.law.justia.com/codes/arkansas/2016/title-27/subtitle-7/chapter-102/.