Educating and Inspiring People to Take Action

There’s now nearly 13 tons less trash on the shorelines of local waterways thanks to 107 volunteers who came out to participate in river cleanups to celebrate October’s “Keep the Tennessee River Watershed Beautiful Month” presented by TVA. Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that hosts river cleanups by taking volunteers to clean shorelines at events held in all seven states of the Tennessee River watershed, works with communities every October to create awareness for the Tennessee River.

October’s volunteers also helped Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful (KTNRB) cruise right past its milestone of 600,000 lbs. (or 300 tons) of trash removed from the Tennessee River watershed since it became a nonprofit. A Boeing 747, one of the world’s largest planes, weighs 300 tons – to give a physical perspective of the weight of trash removed from the Tennessee River watershed. For context of the group’s momentum, KTNRB had removed 47,756 lbs. of trash before putting its first boat in the water in 2019.

“We’ve come such a long way in a short window of time, and it’s all thanks to the good people who volunteer their time to protect their waterways by cleaning trash that wasn’t even theirs,” said Kathleen Gibi, KTNRB Executive Director. “This year has been full of new records broken, and the records belong to those thousands of volunteers who have made a commitment to this precious river system of ours.”

In the 2023 calendar year, KTNRB is now setting a new record with every pound collected. So far this year, 218,729 lbs. of trash have been removed from the Tennessee River watershed by 994 volunteers.

The cleanup series during October’s celebrations was a perfect example of volunteers from all walks of life, with the series cleanups taking place within rural settings like the Powell River up in New Tazewell, Tennessee, to more industrial settings like Ingalls Harbor in Decatur, Alabama.

The October 2023 cleanup series swept through three states and nine cities with just five events:

Oct. 14: Powell River (Norris) in New Tazewell, TN – 6,700 lbs., 28 volunteers

Oct. 15: Cherokee Lake in Bean Station, TN – 4,850 lbs., 18 volunteers

Oct. 19: Chickamauga Lake in Harrison, TN – 4,847 lbs., 20 volunteers

Oct. 28: Pickwick Lake in Iuka, MS, Counce, TN & Waterloo, AL – 4,983 lbs., 25 volunteers

Oct. 29: Wheeler Lake in Decatur, AL – 4,017 lbs., 16 volunteers

Total: 25,397 lbs., 107 volunteers

The 6th annual river cleanup series was only part of the celebration. “Keep the Tennessee River Watershed Beautiful Month” was officially proclaimed by governors of the four states touched by the Tennessee River: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, as well as Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Paris, Tennessee, Mayor Kathy Ray.

In addition to TVA’s ongoing sponsorship of the cleanup series, the Tennessee Dept. of Transportation’s Nobody Trashes Tennessee litter prevention campaign and Keep Tennessee Beautiful have consistently funded “Keep the Tennessee River Watershed Beautiful Month” since it launched in 2018.

This year’s series consisted of two cleanups held in collaboration with the national nonprofit Living Lands & Waters, who brought three of their 30-foot work boats, and Allegheny CleanWays, who brought their 30-foot work boat to supplement KTNRB’s two work boats plus many local partners made the series a success.

Beyond the cleanup series’ impressive numbers, Kathleen said they observed a cove on Chickamauga Lake that they had cleaned four years prior that had once had chronic litter and was now virtually spotless. She attributed it to a cultural shift since the legacy litter had been removed and ongoing cleanup efforts by their Adopt a River Mile participants, as well as river cleanup efforts such as the annual Tennessee River Rescue put on by Waterways.

“That was so encouraging to see at our Chickamauga Lake cleanup this year, and we hope to start having that experience more often,” said Kathleen. “We’d love to see such a reduction in litter that we work ourselves out of the business of larger river cleanup efforts – and with signs like we saw on Chickamauga Lake, it seems we’re starting to head in that direction!”

Milestones aren’t the only thing KTNRB has been achieving this year. In September, the Tennessee Dept. of Transportation (TDOT) and Keep Tennessee Beautiful awarded KTNRB with three honors:

TDOT recently recognized 17 winners of the Keep Tennessee Beautiful Awards of Excellence Grant Competition in September, presenting a total of $54,000 in grants to environmental leaders across the state. Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful was honored in the categories of Lakes, Rivers & Streams Litter Free Award, and Keep America Beautiful TN Affiliate (1st place), for a total of $8,000 in funding. KTNRB’s Executive Director, Kathleen Gibi, was also honored with a leadership award called the Martin L. Kennedy Award, receiving $1,500 in funding toward KTNRB efforts.

In August, KTNRB was also named “2023 Nonprofit Recycler of the Year” by the Tennessee Recycling Coalition for its cigarette litter prevention partnership with Dollywood. Since the project launched at Dollywood in 2021, the program has led to the plastic getting recycled from approximately 450,000 cigarette butts.

The project also made Dollywood the first theme park in the world to recycle the plastic from every cigarette butt collected in guest-facing receptacles on its property. It was enough to grab The Weather Channel’s attention, and Kathleen was asked to speak about the project with Dollywood in a live interview on the channel for America Recycles Day in November.

“We’re so proud of this honor, more than anything because of the commitment from Dollywood and the other supporting partners who worked to ensure that this trailblazing collaboration would protect the Tennessee River watershed from the harmful effects cigarette litter,” said Kathleen. “Taking the effort to the next step of recycling the plastic from otherwise discarded cigarette waste makes it all the more impactful and is yet the latest example of Dollywood’s reputation of working toward the greater good.”

KTNRB was able to provide Dollywood with 26 art-wrapped cigarette receptacles through a collaboration of grants and sponsorships from Keep America Beautiful, Keep Tennessee Beautiful, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the American Eagle Foundation.

TerraCycle, an international recycling company, covers the cost of shipping the collected cigarette butts to their facility so the plastic microfibers in the cigarette filters can be recycled into outdoor plastic furniture. Two park benches donated by TerraCycle and made from the recycled cigarette plastic are now installed at Dollywood near the theme park’s bald eagle exhibit.

In addition to working with Dollywood on the Cigarette Litter Prevention Program, KTNRB also has approximately 1,000 art-wrapped cigarette receptacles installed at marinas, campgrounds, businesses, and tourism sites in all seven states of the Tennessee River watershed. If you visit a local state park, odds are that you’ve seen one, as KTNRB has worked with Tennessee State Parks to install receptacles at every state park in Tennessee.

At the moment, KTNRB is in the process of identifying new partners to install 300 more receptacles donated from Keep America Beautiful. When all is said and done, KTNRB will soon have a total of 1,300 receptacles installed throughout the Tennessee River watershed. With each receptacle valued at $100, KTNRB has helped to secure $130,000 worth of litter prevention infrastructure in the region in its Cigarette Litter Prevention Program alone.

For having a staff no larger than two employees so far, KTNRB has been able to achieve so much with the help of an active board, strong partners, supportive sponsors, and, of course, passionate volunteers.

You’d probably be surprised to learn that KTNRB has been up to so much more than listed in this article! For information on Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful’s ongoing programs or to view their river cleanup schedule, visit

Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful is in the process of expanding its staff and is in need of new sponsorship support! Whether it’s an individual donation, a commitment to donate your change from rounding up the dollar of every purchase made with your debit card, making a business contribution, or a title sponsorship of one of KTNRB’s programs, you’ll be making a huge impact for KTNRB and therefore the Tennessee River watershed! Visit to support KNTRB today!