Keeping the Neuse Clean

The Neuse is a river that flows out of Falls Dam in Raleigh and is 275 miles long, flowing into the Pamlico Sound. Since I live nearby, I often find myself on it.

When water is releasing from Falls Dam, there are several nice play spots within about a 1/4 mile of the dam, where you can practice ferrying and surfing. Further down, the Neuse is mostly flat water and can offer some good endurance paddling options. The Neuse was actually the first river I ever kayaked on when I was very young in summer camp and then later, I would go down it in a Canoe with a friend and it would draw me into the sport.

One of the first things I noticed when I started kayaking on the Neuse was how dirty it felt compared to other rivers I have been on, such as the Cape Fear, Roanoke, and Haw. The Neuse is full of trash filled strainers and all matter of human debri, enough so that I always felt quite dirty when I first started kayaking on it.

As I think a lot of kayaker’s do, I got tired of seeing such a dirty river every-time I paddled, so began bringing gloves and trash-bags with me whenever I go out and try to at least bring in one load of trash each time I paddle the Neuse. One person realistically doesn’t do a lot, but I try to keep several areas free from trash and rescue bottles/trash floating from the river whenever I safely can.

Where is All this Trash Coming From?

It took me spending a ton of time playing at the Dam to realize that all of this pollution, aside from the questionable water quality of Falls Lake, is the result of trash from Raleigh. The area by Falls Dam is relatively clean, but gets progressively dirty as it flows through Raleigh.

This becomes even more obvious when you start going a bit further down the river, as the run from even Auburn Knightdale or Covered Bridge Road to Smithfield gets increasingly cleaner the further you get away from Raleigh.

The below is an incomplete list of some of the sources of pollution to the Neuse River:


I don’t know if they are the largest polluter, but fisherman definitely are a large source of Neuse River pollution. You can spot fishing spots by grocery bags of trash laying in piles by the shore or hanging from a bush. The blue plastic fish bait containers, along with the styrofoam versions, often litter the bank. Bottles and other trash, including piles of beer cans, can also be an indication that you are looking at a fishing spot. Hooks, bobbers, and tangled lines also often litter the shore.

Its common to see these all up and down the bank, but they are even more prevalent in areas that have easy access to the road, like close to the New Bern Road bridge and by the Milburnie Dam. Here, you will see multiple spots where fisherman spent an afternoon enjoying the river, just to leave their mess behind.

Fisherman will often leave behind all their trash and of course when the river rises or it rains, this gets swept down river.

Four Wheelers and Kids

There are several four-wheeler trails that run along the opposite side of the Neuse River, as well as subdivisions that are within walking distance. I will often come across failed fire pits, characterized by poorly chosen logs that are charred, but obviously too big/wet to actually burn, along with piles of Budweiser cans, with the odd import thrown in. These sometimes appear in the middle of large rocks and are interchangeable with the fisherman group. That is to say, its not uncommon to find fishing lures, bait cups, and fishing line within the pile, but drinking, as opposed to fishing, seems to be the primary goal for this group.

Sometimes, an effort was made, like the fisherman camp, to corral all the trash and keep it in one place. However, no-one takes responsibility for it when it is time to leave.

Cars and Bridges

Almost anyplace there is a vehicle bridge, you can expect to see a bit more trash than normal.

Some of this is due to trash/items being lost from vehicles, such as trash left in the back of a truck or trash lost from garbage trucks. Other people purposely throw items out into the river when they cross a bridge.

One of the spots I always try to stop at is the New Bern Avenue bridge. Almost every time I go, I find new trash here. Sometimes it is fast food bags, but I also often find things people are trying to dispose of. For example, it is common to find beer cans and other illicit paraphernalia here, as it is an easily accessible area to dump things they don’t want in their house/car. I’ve even seen a full cash register thrown here, which I can only imagine had an interesting story behind it.

All sorts of debris comes over in these areas, including traffic cones and barrels…I even saw a twin bed when out this weekend.

The Neuse River Trail

The Neuse river trail, which runs 27 miles through Raleigh and then even further as part of Clayton’s trail, is pretty neat, especially if you are a biker. It is a paved low grade trail, with a cool natural environment and is quite popular with bikers and walkers.

However, the Neuse River Trail significantly increases the accessibility to the river and pretty much all up and down the trail, at least in areas where the river is easily accessible to walkers, you will see an increased amount of trash. This type of trash is usually different from Fisherman sites, as it will just be a couple bottles or a styrofoam cup.

Boaters and Swimmers

There are several float runs and depending on the weather/time of year, a fair number of people boat on the Neuse. Sometimes, I will come across things that are obviously from other boaters, such as busted pool floats, paddles, and other lost gear. These are often easy to spot as they are in places that trash that are not easily accessible to walkers/fisherman or is obviously something a boater would of brought with them.

Other Sources

Of course, this is just a small list of some of the more common sources of trash I have observed, but I’m sure there are others.

Trash Strainers

A typical trash strainer. Trash collects here until a big rain or dam release and then flows into the river.
A typical trash strainer. Trash collects here until a big rain or dam release and then flows further downriver.
One of, in my opinion at least, the most disgusting parts of the Neuse is the trash strainers. Trash, such as bottles, bags, and plastic, catches on strainers on the side of the river. These collect and build up, resulting in a nasty swarm of disposable products and river gunk, which would make for probably the worst strainer experience imaginable.

Then, when the river starts flowing, such as after a rain or when they release from Falls Dam, the strainers washout and release a mass of trash that goes a bit further downstream.

Eventually, some of this will make it all the way to the coast and pollute the ocean.

I haven’t figured out a good way to clean these up safely, but would love to use these as a way of catching and removing trash from the river. I have thought about putting nets along the tree, and then reeling them in periodically. In addition to safety concerns, I worry about the impact that might have on the eco-system, although surely the trash has a more negative impact.

Cleaning Up the Neuse

Almost since the first time I went out on the Neuse, I thought about how I should bring a bag to police up some of the trash I saw. However, it took awhile for this thought to actually transform into action.

Once I started, it has become sort of an obsession in that I go out of my way to find/remove trash and typically remove at least one trash bag of bottles, cans, plastic, and other trash each time I go out. Sometimes, I do more and have to make pit stops along the river to drop off bags of trash.

This evolved into using a trash-picker-upper, which I learned from trial and error needs to be secured to the boat and have flotation on it. Part of this is so that I don’t have to touch things and can grab items without crawling through the bushes or undergrowth. However, it also helps on the back, as I don’t have to bend over as much.

This is trash collector version 2.1, it has a PFD and rope, as version 1.0 did not and fell overboard.
This is trash collector version 2.1, it has a PFD and rope, as version 1.0 did not and fell overboard.

You Can’t Get it All

One sad fact that you have to accept when you start trying to clean up a river is that there is no way you can get it all. Some things simply can’t be gotten to safely, others are too large to fit in the boat, and somethings are just plain nasty and sadly probably need to be cleaned using a hazmat suit.

Accepting this is important, because if you let it discourage you and simply don’t do anything, the trash is just going to sit there and go further down stream. I often remind myself that if I do not grab it, who will.

It is also easy for me to get upset with the people who simply leave their trash around, like fisherman, but I have found that you need to get over the idea that you are cleaning up after someone and realize that, again, if you don’t do it, who will?

When I can, I try to help make it clear that trash should be picked up. For example, at the end of my run, I clean up the launch area and if someone is fishing or hanging out, I make a point to ask them if they have any trash they want me to throw away and see if they need a trash bag. Occasionally, people and children see this and end up giving me a hand with cleanup, which I think has a certain amount of long term value.

What Can Bottle Manufacturers Do?

I think charging a tax/fee for bottles, which a person can refund easily and quickly at convenient locations(such as grocery stores) would at least have some impact on the amount of bottles/cans that end up in the trash.

As it is now, while other states in the area do have return fees, North Carolina does not. While some people collect aluminum cans for scrap metal, this is not something that is easily accessible for most people, as you have to go to one of several recycling centers and most people simply don’t consumer enough cans for it to be profitable.

By charging an extra fee, along with making it very easy to get a refund for this fee, some people would be more inclined to return their cans/bottles and get a dollar or two off their next 18 pack of beer or soda. It would also make people more likely to pickup bottles in order to collect refunds. This could be especially profitable for beer companies if they all got together and standardized their glass bottles so that they could be cleaned/reused. I believe this is already being done in other countries.

In addition, money collected by bottles that do not get returned could be put aside by the soda/beer manufactures to help fund cleanup efforts, so even though many people would still just throwaway or discard their bottles, the funds collected could be put towards offsetting this to a degree.

What Can the City of Raleigh Do?

The Neuse River Trail just as a result of paving 27 miles of nature has a major impact on the environment. However, by introducing all the extra people traffic, the trail also has an impact on the amount of trash that litters the river and forest. One thing that could be done to help alleviate this is to add more trashcans along the trail and make an effort to regularly pick them up.

While the morality of someone who just discards trash on the ground is questionable, I like to think that at least some of these people when faced with a conveniently placed trashcan would make an effort to use it. So, a good first step is to improve the amount of trashcans available to the hundreds(or more) of people that use this trail daily.

I’m sure there are other things that could be done too, such as cracking down on illegal fishing, but simply adding trashcans more frequently along the trail and, just as important, regularly getting out there to pull the trash, would have a not-insignificant impact on the amount of trash that ends up in the river.

What can I Do?

As a kayaker, you have an opportunity to help keep the river clean at a level that most people don’t, which is to say, you can get to areas that can’t be reached from the bank and are on a much more personal level with the river than people who simply walk the bank.

Use this as an opportunity to clean up.

Pack some gloves and bags and commit to picking up some trash each time you go out.

Again, you won’t be able to get everything and it is important to not put yourself at personal(or chemical/hazmat/biological) risk, but any trash you pull out of the river makes a difference, even if it is just a bag or bottle.

3 thoughts on “Keeping the Neuse Clean

  1. Hi,

    First of all, thank you. Thank you for taking the time to write this. Thank you for taking the time to clean up the rivers while you can. And thank you for giving me so much to think about.

    It just dawned on me, you are completely right – NC does not have a bottle return. Why would the state that claims the originators of Coca Cola, Pepsi and Cheerwine not have a bottle return? This blows my mind. Have you ever looked into this more?

    I want to start looking into having small things change. To me, this sounds like one that can make a pretty significant impact.

    Of course, the clean up is the most important part. I have been looking for local clean up projects and they are slim to none. Everything is more focused on the beaches, which is great, but being in the Piedmont Area, I want to explore more of what we can do here as well.

    Thanks so much for your time!

  2. Thanks, I’ve not looked into it too much, although I think it is something that would likely need to be legislated. Setting up a bottle return in North Carolina would likely mean raising prices or some amount of reduced profit on the part of the drink manufacturers, so I don’t think they would initiate it on their own. Perhaps the same legislators(and areas) that support the plastic bag ban might be able to help initiate it.

    I think starting small is a great idea and it doesn’t have to be hard. It can be as simple as keeping some trash bags and gloves in your car, so if you come across a dump site, you can clean it up.

  3. My first time paddling was just recently on the lower Neuse from Mial Plantation to Covered Bridge (all based on your launch site recommendations, thank you). Though it was a lovely time I came away with the exact same thoughts and desires for the trash that I saw, picking up a bit of what I could along my way.

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