SECAUCUS, NJ — As New Jersey began to reopen, Hackensack Riverkeeper, the citizen-steward of the Hackensack River Watershed, celebrated the summer solstice on June 20 by engaging in their annual cleanup along the river at Laurel Hill County Park.

Due to the pandemic, the event was the first public cleanup conducted by the clean water advocacy organization this year. However, because New Jersey was hit hard by COVID-19, and is in phases of reopening the state, Riverkeeper was forced to adjust the program to keep its volunteers safe.

Riverkeeper Outreach Coordinator Samantha Kreisler arranged the event to allow for a maximum of 50 volunteers -- half of what current state guidelines permit for outdoor gatherings. The popular event reached its maximum volunteer capacity within an hour of going public on June 11. Another Covid-19-related change was canceling the traditional post-cleanup barbecue. The activity was missed by longtime volunteers, but accepted.

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“Once Covid-19 [hit], we put everything on pause, including our River Cleanup program. But once New Jersey reached phase two we made the decision to get back out — with additional safety precautions of course” said Kreisler. “The pandemic forced us to rethink our entire program. Registration, check-in, and all action plan procedures were modified to ensure the safety of our volunteers. Everywhere they worked — in the park, outside the park, and on the river — proper physical distancing requirements were constantly maintained.”

The cleanup was a success. Some volunteers pursued trash up- and downriver utilizing Hackensack Riverkeeper’s specialized fleet of canoes, while others scoured the banks on foot. After four hours, they had collected over 1,500 pounds of trash; hauling large garbage bags filled with tires; single-use plastic debris; Styrofoam containers; and other garbage to a waiting truck. In addition to those items, large amounts of previously-discarded personal protective equipment including face masks and gloves were found and picked up.

Volunteers also picked up much more than the usual amount of Mylar balloons, which denoted possible evidence of pandemic-influenced graduation celebrations. Hackensack Riverkeeper reminds everyone that the act of releasing balloons is delayed littering.

“We were hit especially hard this year, from COVID-19 forcing us to temporarily shut down all our Eco-Programs, to the devastating fire that destroyed our Hackensack offices last month,” said Riverkeeper Captain Bill Sheehan. “It’s unfortunate we weren’t able to restart our cleanup season in March like usual, but we were happy to welcome summer with a cleanup, even without a cookout. Still, it felt great to get out, to bring our friends at least a little closer to normal, and to give back to our watershed communities."

Kreisler is currently working on Riverkeeper’s next community River Cleanup, scheduled for July 19 in Hackensack. Participation will be limited. Interested person can go to hackensackriverkeeper.org/subscribe-to-emails to receive volunteer-related email updates.