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Rock the Green and 
Milwaukee Riverkeeper Partner for Earth Day Celebration

Milwaukee Riverkeeper volunteers collect waste

Milwaukee Riverkeeper volunteers collect waste

In 1970, the Vietnam War raged on, gas-guzzling autos dominated American roads and corporations discharged toxic waste into the air and waterways with few legal ramifications. The time was ripe for change. Wisconsin’s own Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. senator, realized that he could build upon the passion of the anti-war movement to create public awareness about environmental pollution. Thus, Earth Day was born.

Nelson’s mission lives on through the sixth annual Rock the Green Earth Day Celebration, presented by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and held on April 22—the same date as the first Earth Day in 1970. The event begins at 9 a.m. with the annual Spring River Cleanup of the Milwaukee River Basin, and continues with the Rock the Green zero-waste concert, from noon to 2 p.m., with rocker Trapper Schoepp performing on a bicycle-powered stage. Local food vendors will offer edibles for purchase and more than a dozen sustainably based organizations will provide environmental education. The event organizers will be prepared with a tent in case of inclement weather.

Rock the Green, best known for its sustainable music festival that strives for zero waste, hosted its first Earth Day celebration in 2012 outside Milwaukee City Hall in order to accommodate the lunchtime business crowd. “This year, we’re collaborating with Milwaukee Riverkeeper because there’s a lot of synergy with our groups,” says Rock the Green Founder and Executive Director Lindsay Stevens Gardner.

Gardner’s background is in large-scale event production, having produced concerts and events for major brands. Before creating Rock the Green, she recalls, “I was head of event production and touring, so I was the one who had to clean up the mess at the end of the day.” She continues, “When I moved back to my hometown of Milwaukee, I was inspired to create a near-zero-waste music festival, with great music and an eco-education component.” The 2016 Rock the Green Sustainability Festival reached an eco-milestone by diverting 90 percent of its waste through composting, recycling or repurposing.

This year’s Earth Day event marks the 22nd annual Spring River Cleanup of the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic and Menomonee rivers, an event hosted by Milwaukee Riverkeeper. Volunteers can gather at one of 50 locations along the Milwaukee River Basin, and they will receive gloves, trash bags and a free T-shirt for participating. “Site captains from Milwaukee Riverkeeper will be available to assist,” relays Abby Kuranz, communications specialist with the organization. To volunteer for the Spring River Cleanup, register at

Milwaukee Riverkeeper began in 1995 as Friends of the Menomonee River. After several changes, the group adopted its current name and now protects the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic rivers. The group also promotes recreational use of the rivers by hosting paddling events and workshops, and provides the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail Map which indicates where people can gain safe and legal access to the bodies of water. In addition, from May to October, 100 volunteers test water quality and provide the results in an annual report card that serves as the basis for the group’s advocacy work.

Earth Day 2016 brought 3,600 volunteers to the 50-plus river basin locations and they removed 75,000 pounds of trash, which Kuranz said is the equivalent of about 25 pickup trucks. “We hope this year’s cleanup encourages people to get outside to learn about, enjoy and connect with our three rivers. When people connect with our rivers, they tend to want to protect them, especially when they start to think of the type of environment that they want to create for future generations,” Kuranz says.

The sixth annual Rock the Green Earth Day Celebration is similar to a mini Rock the Green Sustainability Festival and includes elements unique to it, such as the stage powered 100 percent by four cycling teams on stationary bikes. “Rock the Green’s mission is to educate and engage the community about eco-friendly ways of living,” Gardner says. “We do that through the annual sustainability festival, Earth Day celebration and environmental education via social and digital media.”

Admission: free. Festival location: Picnic Area 8 at Estabrook Park, 4400 N. Estabrook Dr., Milwaukee. For more information, visit or

Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.

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