John Naylor started an Instagram account to document all the plastic he was pulling out of the Susquehanna River and into his canoe.
Two years later, the “lifelong Yorker” has personally discovered and disposed of 6,000-plus items—mostly plastic bottles and bags—plus the occasional tire, even an old couch. (That didn’t go into the canoe.)
“The Susquehanna is geologically the most significant feature in the region,” said Naylor, 54, who regularly enjoys canoeing between the Columbia/Wrightsville area, south to the Maryland line.
How many pieces of plastic trash can he fit into his canoe? On Earth Day last year, he scoured 505 items from the river, put them into his canoe, paddled it all back to land, into his pickup truck and, eventually, into recycling bins.
“The most upsetting thing I’ve ever found was a huge Styrofoam block, birds were drilling and eating,” he said. “My dad influenced me to give a damn about the natural world and have respect for it.”
If you’re curious, Naylor tracks everything he finds on social media under the handle susquehanna_plastic_pickn_1000.
He’s found numerous blue, 55-gallon plastic drums floating in the river—he can fit three into his canoe at a time. He counts each as one piece of plastic for his tally. Small items go into his green York City recycling bin. When he’s on the river’s Lancaster County side, he takes plastics directly to LCSWMA. Other items, like the old couch, go to the York incinerator.
“I’ve had comments like, ‘You can’t clean the whole river yourself,’” said Naylor, 54. “My return is, ‘Well I can clean a little bit of it and, along the way, give some exposure to the challenges of single-use plastic.’”
Naylor occasionally joins a larger environmental effort, patrolling the river with the Lower Susquehanna River Keepers. The nonprofit, dedicated to protecting the ecological integrity of the Susquehanna watershed and Chesapeake Bay, relies on grassroots “pollution patrols” by volunteer boaters. They’re looking for violations by wastewater treatment facilities and other major sources of contaminants.
He has also made a difference in his workplace of 21 years, the Starbucks York Roasting Plant and Distribution Center. About 20 years ago, he went to his superiors and proposed a stretch-wrap recovery program, recycling the plastic wrap from warehouse pallet loads. They agreed, and, at that time, the facility was recycling 900 pounds a week. Since then, he said, the amount has undoubtedly escalated. The plastic wrap is manufactured elsewhere into durable decking material and park benches.
Naylor encourages others to make small changes in their habits.
“Ask yourself what you can do to reduce the amount of single-use plastic,” he said. “It will become second nature to you and make a positive change in the environment.”
Naylor’s example is especially fitting at this time of year as Earth Day is April 22, a celebration of environmental awareness dating from 1970.
In Harrisburg, volunteers will join forces for the 7th Annual Great Harrisburg Litter CleanUp on April 13. Coordinated by Tri County Community Action, the event provides T-shirts and cleanup supplies to all who lend a hand.
Last year, nearly 500 volunteers removed more than 28 tons of trash from Harrisburg’s public spaces. About 100 of those volunteers, working along the Capital Area Greenbelt, removed 150 bags of trash and more than 100 tires.
“About 70 of the tires were near 19th Street on top of a steep slope,” said Mary Ann Furedi, a city resident and Capital Area Greenbelt Association (CAGA) board member.
Volunteers, working in assembly-line style, rolled the tires downhill for loading into open bed trucks driven by volunteers to the city’s waiting dumpsters.
“Someone had definitely dumped these tires in the night,” Furedi said. “The area was also littered with a lot of oil cans, and it looked like someone had owned a garage years ago.”
She said that volunteers’ spirits were high throughout last year’s efforts, despite working through patches of poison ivy, a cache of dirty diapers, old transistor radios, needles, old beer cans and plenty of plastic bottles and straws.
“A lot of people realize how far the city has come, and they realize the Greenbelt is a valuable, beautiful resource,” Furedi said. “There’s a sense of pride that comes with a sense of responsibility, and it makes you angry about what people throw away.”
Greenbelt volunteers included both individuals and groups, including Highmark Blue Shield, The Vista School, Philadelphia Insurance Co., Penbrook Leo Club, Caleb’s Legacy Fishing Group, Harrisburg Area Road Runners and River Runners.
“Earth Day is perfect timing for a cleanup because the tree canopy hasn’t opened up, and you can get to the refuse,” said Mike Shaull of Harrisburg, a CAGA board member who works at Highmark Blue Shield and coordinated last year’s team of 20 volunteers. “Plus, people have a little cabin fever.”
He said that it was rewarding to see the fruits of their labors—bags of trash—at the end of the day.
“Part of our issue is our throwaway culture,” said Ann Brooks of Mechanicsburg, who volunteered with the Highmark team. “I’m old enough to remember when we returned Coke bottles to have them refilled.”
The dental IT worker enjoys biking on the Greenbelt, and she plans to pitch in again this year.
The one thing that all volunteers note: Earth Day cleanup efforts are primarily successful due to old-school, grassroots efforts that rely on volunteers doing hands-on work.
Another common theme—consumers need to evaluate their habits.
“It’s cliché, but if people just thought more about reducing their amount of trash—simple things like refillable water bottles or coffee mugs—it can make a difference,” Furedi said.
And it’s a ripple effect, she added.
“In relation to the Susquehanna River, everything that gets tossed in Harrisburg has the potential to end up in the river, which then ends up in the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean,” she said.