Environmental protection under water: the refuse hunters from the Lahn

in the middle

Status: 06/10/2023 11:15 a.m

They dive in the Lahn near Marburg and look for garbage – every week for three years. The young Lahn divers have already recovered more than eight tons of rubbish, from street signs to weapons.

Flora Gläßer has a smile on her face as soon as she slips on her wetsuit in the midday sun in Marburg. “Of course we enjoy being in the water and diving,” beams the 23-year-old.

Like many in the team, which now consists of 14 volunteers, she studied biology. “The environmental protection aspect is huge for us. Rivers are the garbage highways of the seas,” she explains. “And that starts in places like this.”

Extreme littering in German rivers

In the Hessian town of Marburg, the Lahn flows through the middle of the city. Especially under bridges, the underwater littering is extreme. “It’s really a problem: you can’t see it,” complains Flora Gläßer. “If the water were crystal clear here, hundreds of people would probably have complained. But that’s not how people think about it.”

Especially under water, the view in the brown colored river is extremely clouded. This also entails great danger for the Lahn divers – as they call themselves – when they look for rubbish on the river bed without artificial breathing air. The safety precautions are therefore high. “We have practiced a lot and are prepared for many scenarios,” explains team leader Noah Boonma.

Those who go down always have a flashlight with them and a blade to be able to cut themselves free under water in an emergency, for example from fishing lines. It’s even happened to longtime diver Boonma. “We can never rule out the possibility of ammunition being found, because it was always disposed of in our rivers during the world wars,” says the 28-year-old. No one goes under water alone. Taking care of yourself and others is a must.

The “Lahntaucher” collect rubbish in the river in Marburg.

It started with a shard of glass

The students and graduates have already completed almost 100 garbage dives since Boonma started the initiative together with a friend. “A fellow student injured herself on a broken piece of glass while bathing in the Lahn. Originally, the only idea was to clean this bathing area,” says Boonma, who would soon like to do a doctorate in conservation biology. “In the end we had so much rubbish that we couldn’t put it in the bin anymore. That’s how it all started.” Since then, his team, which has grown steadily, has removed a total of 8.3 tons of rubbish from the Lahn.

In the water, the divers also proceed systematically this afternoon: they continue exactly where they had stopped searching the bottom a week earlier. It doesn’t take long until they find what they are looking for today for the first time. At a depth of two and a half meters, there are two street signs on top of each other. One of them can be quickly brought to the surface, the other is stuck under stones. The recovery takes much longer. But it’s worth it, you can feel the joy of every piece you take out.

Bicycles are the most common find for divers.

Between anger and sadness

“Another piece of garbage that is no longer in the water. Every part counts,” agrees Petra Hoffmann. She studied psychology and is part of the second half of the team that uses pedal boats to transport all the junk ashore. “Of course, the big question behind it is: Who throws this in here and how can you be like that?” says Hoffmann thoughtfully. She is angry and sad at the same time, but tries to tackle it constructively. The goal is to improve the water quality and to do something good for the animals and the environment. “And we all live here,” adds Hoffmann.

A toaster, a mobile phone, an old site fence, a neon tube, another street sign and three completely rusted bicycles are added in a good two hours in the water. “Bicycles are our number one find,” reports Hoffmann. They have meanwhile pulled about 150 pieces out of the Lahn.

Barbecue and charcoal leftovers are often included, as they are today. “People come to the Lahn because it’s so beautiful here and then throw their barbecue waste into the river,” says team leader Boonma angrily. “They’re destroying the place they went to by themselves.”

Barriers can also be found in the Lahn.

A small bore rifle and heaps of rubbish

But the most frightening find of this mission follows at the very end: a small-calibre rifle. The police are also on site quickly. For a short time there is great excitement among the young environmentalists. “We’ve had this before, even with ammunition. This is a sharp weapon,” explains Boonma. “Of course you never know what happened to it and why it was thrown in.”

Together they finally weigh what they recovered today: 171 kilograms of rubbish. Passers-by should be made aware of this, also because the Lahn Taucher finance themselves through donations. “A great job that is being done here,” praises Christian Wassmuth, who is walking here with his family. “Amazing how much garbage that is.”

“So far, no one feels responsible for it,” says diver Gläßer, summing up the problem. The Lahn is not particularly littered. The problem exists in all German rivers, according to the 23-year-old.

Although there is always rubbish, the “Lahn Taucher” have a clear goal in mind: “We want to get the Lahn in Marburg garbage-free,” emphasizes founder Boonma. “We’ll never achieve that 100 percent, but we want to get closer.”

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