MASON CITY, Iowa (AP) — For Mason City resident Charlie Thompson, a part of home is now where the garbage is.
His refuge is refuse.
He can find a sort of salivation in sanitation.
“I just want to be in there with the trash,” Thompson said while moving a salvaged skateboard back and forth with his foot.
It’s one of several prized items that Thompson keeps in his home garage, which he calls “HQ.” In addition to another skateboard, there’s also two bowling balls he and his helpers pulled from local waterways, as well as a decades-old Only Deals shopping cart and some kind of bovid bone. A piece of a paddle boat he used to use for excursions is given a privileged place on this wall of fame. Nearby, there’s a trash container filled almost exclusively with depleted cans of sparkling water and a nearby workbench for tinkering with what’s been brought in.
When Thompson, 45, and his two sons, Marlon, 10, and Jack, 7, moved into a home not far from Cheslea Creek in September 2020, the three instantly became interested in what could be in a pond close by.
“I said, ‘I’m going to go out there and get in,’ and I pulled out a headlight assembly from an F-150 and I said, ‘What else is in here?’ and we started going around and picking stuff up and we ended up filling the bed of this truck,” Thompson told the Mason City Globe Gazette.
He said that from there he and his two sons got inspired to see what else was around town. What could they find in little hidden streams that people rarely pay attention to?
“I have got a TV that we pulled out. I have fixed it. It works,” Thompson said. “Hubcaps were one of the first things ... safety cones ... five-gallon bucket out of the water ... manhole covers ... just anything.”
What Thompson and his sons find can be broken down into one of three categories: Stuff they recycle, stuff they reuse (or “upcycle”) and stuff they have to trash. Tires are a big one that fall into the latter category. As is Styrofoam.
“I hate finding Styrofoam because the ducks and geese and fish will confuse that for food and they can easily blow up and die. So Styrofoam is my absolute nemesis,” Thompson said.
According to him, such work necessitates some specific gear.
“We bring a stiff rake and those dog cleanup rakes. Those are the best. I use those all the time out there. We’ve got a kayak, a canoe and an inflatable boat. But the best way to do it is throw on a pair of waders and go around. You realize how therapeutic it is,” Thompson said.
There’s also a camera.
Not far along into the process, Thompson said that he and his sons started filming their outdoor escapades.
“I’ve always been somewhat of an entertainer and when I started doing it last year I thought, ‘Who wouldn’t want to watch this?’ And we started doing this YouTube channel.”
The channel is called “Clean Water Boys” and features videos of their finds, explainers about what supplies are needed to clean a pond and even pieces on proper fish tank maintenance (Thompson keeps multiple aquariums in his basement that feature goldfish as well as tetras and axolotls which are like salamanders). Along with that, they maintain a Facebook page with a similar name that features videos and campaigns for the local Habitat for Humanity. And a TikTok account, too.
Scott Grummer, who works as a fisheries biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said that some of the most dangerous wastes for native aquatic species around the Mason City and Clear Lake areas are old fishing lines that animals can get tangled up in as well as plastic bottle holders for soft drinks.
“It takes plastic a long time to break down and decompose naturally in the environment and we live in a plastic world so there’s a lot of plastic that gets out into the environment,” Grummer said.
During years where there are lower water cycles, Grummer said that some of that unwanted debris is more visible which means that people can potentially get to it and remove it. According to him, if folks see smaller-scale debris in or near water they can remove that on their own. However, he said that people should report anything that could be considered large-scale dumping to the DNR or to county conservation.
Mike Webb, the executive director of the Cerro Gordo County Conservation Board, said that his department finds a lot of construction materials, wrappers, tires and yard waste in and near certain bodies of water.
“The rivers, who knows what’s going to be in them. Rivers are a little bit of everything,” Webb said.
Per Webb, the particularly bad spots for improper disposal are parking lots and gravel roads in isolated parts of the county. He said if people were more mindful about their trash, departments such as his could spend even more time making an area better instead of just picking up after people.
People like Charlie, Marlon and Jack, then, are people Webb appreciates having around.
“That’s a great service and a good hobby for them and a good way to give back,” he said.
As for future adventures for the Clean Water Boys, Thompson said that he doesn’t have anything majorly ambitious planned. There’s enough right in his own backyard to keep him and his boys occupied.
“There’s so much in the local waterways that it’s almost an endless initiative,” he said. “In a couple of years, when my boys get more mature, we’ll say, ‘If you have a pond or stream you want us to hit, we’ll go hit it up.’”
When that day comes, Charlie and Marlon and Jack will pull up their waders, hop in a truck with a trailer attached and make their way to the water.