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Cleaning up America's rivers

Published 4:25 PM ET, Wed November 27, 2013
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CNN Hero Chad Pregracke has made it his life's work to clean up the Mississippi River and other American waterways. Since 1998, about 70,000 volunteers have helped Pregracke remove more than 7 million pounds of garbage from 23 rivers across the country. David S. Holloway/CNN
Pregracke talks to volunteers during a recent cleanup of the Illinois River near Pekin, Illinois. "The garbage got into the water one piece at a time," Pregracke says. "And that's the only way it's going to come out." David S. Holloway/CNN
At every cleanup site, Pregracke's passion is contagious. "Picking up garbage, it's tough, miserable and hot. We try to make it fun," he said. David S. Holloway/CNN
On average, Pregracke says he organizes 70 cleanups a year through his nonprofit, Living Lands & Waters. The cleanups are posted on the group's website, Facebook and other outlets so people know where and when they can volunteer. David S. Holloway/CNN
Pregracke believes that volunteers get a huge sense of accomplishment from seeing the garbage piled up at the end of the cleanup. He considers that just as important as the amount of trash they help collect. David S. Holloway/CNN
In the past 15 years, Pregracke says he has helped pull more than 67,000 tires from U.S. waterways. David S. Holloway/CNN
Close to 90% of what is recovered is recycled; Pregracke says the rest gets disposed of properly. David S. Holloway/CNN
Pregracke lives on a barge about nine months out of the year with members of his 12-person crew. They have a fleet of boats to help get the job done. David S. Holloway/CNN
Pregracke grew up in East Moline, Illinois, where the Mississippi River was in his backyard. As a teenager, he worked as a commercial shell diver and saw all the debris in the water. "I saw thousands of barrels, thousands of tires, cars, trucks and tops of school buses. ... I got sick of seeing it and just wanted to do something about it," he said David S. Holloway/CNN
"(I'm) creating a chance for people to go out there and do something positive," Pregracke said. "Talking is great, but it doesn't do much at all. Action is what I'm about." David S. Holloway/CNN
Pregracke says his message is about much more than cleaning rivers. He believes his story is proof that anyone can make a difference. David S. Holloway/CNN
"A lot of people call me a conservationist or an environmentalist, but the thing is I'm no different than anybody else," Pregracke said. "I just want to be known (as) a hardworking American." David S. Holloway/CNN