It’s September on the Ohio River, and the strange craft on the water is turning heads. Upon closer look, it’s a ramshackle flotilla: two work boats, two houseboats, and a massive trash barge emblazoned with the name Plastic Magnet I.
Behind the wheel of one of the work boats—a 28-foot, trash-picking pontoon called the Rachel Carson—stands its apprentice captain, 26-year-old Hannah Hohman.
The flotilla belongs to Pennsylvania’s rowdiest environmental nonprofit, Allegheny CleanWays (ACW), which pulls 200 to 300 tons of trash from hillsides, illegal dumpsites, and riverbanks around Pittsburgh annually. The group is perhaps most famous for these water-based cleanups—each year, the team picks a “river of focus,” alternating between the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny rivers.
The goal? Sweeping the entirety of the river from one end of Allegheny County to the other, scooping out garbage and combing banks of trash. That includes caring for the waters around some of Pittsburgh’s biggest recreation hotspots, like Duck Hollow on the Monongahela and Kilbuck Township’s boat ramp on the Ohio. “We also do some cleanup on the Yough,” Hohman adds, referring to the Youghiogheny River. “The Lower Youghiogheny offers wonderful fishing and paddling.” Aside from running ACW’s boats, Hohman also works as the group’s water-based education coordinator.
“I’ve always been pretty into trash,” laughs Hohman. “It’s kind of been a lifelong thing.”
Take a quick inventory of her life and you’ll find it checks out: The Pennsylvania native grew up visiting dumpsites and going scrapping with her environmental photographer mom. In college at Penn State, she helped manage the school’s recycling program. After graduating, she took a job with ACW, drawn in part by the job description’s promise that she’d be getting muddy and on the river on a regular basis. Last year, Hohman built her own houseboat, (the Gully Whumper) mostly from salvaged items and trash pulled from Pennsylvania’s rivers.