by Leslie Feldman
Litter drives Bradley Maule, 39, of Mt. Airy, absolutely crazy. And for that reason, in June, he took a 112-mile journey along with 200 other paddlers down the Schuylkill River to track litter as part of the Schuylkill River Sojourn, sponsored by the Schuylkill Action Network (SAN).
“Litter sparked my crusade against litter,” said Maule, a freelance photographer and writer who grew up in Tyrone (Blair County, near Altoona). “Especially in parks, it drives me nuts that some people can’t pack out what they packed in. In 95% of the cases, the litter is always lighter than what you’d brought in — empty beer cans, empty water bottles and empty chip bags. It’s not hard.”
Few have studied this litter at its source. That is why SAN turned to Maule. He had spoken out on the issue in 2015 with his “One Man’s Trash” exhibit at the Fairmount Water Works. This consisted of all the trash he encountered during a year of weekly hikes in Wissahickon Valley Park.
“I got involved with SAN because they’re a great organization whose mission I wholly support,” explained Maule. “They were sponsoring the position of Sojourn Steward, and I was selected.”
The journey took Maule and the other paddler down the river, from Schuylkill Haven to Philadelphia. As Steward, he was required to document the river’s trash. To do this he used the hashtag #SojournSteward on Facebook and Instagram. He also posted articles on PhillySkyline.com. As part of the trip, camping and meals were arranged as part of the Schuylkill River Sojourn, so the group stopped a number of times in a park or in town, heading downstream. Seventy-nine people paddled the full 112 miles, but every day there were 100-120 people who paddled.
“As I expected, the most visible form of litter is always plastic,” said Maule. “Piles of plastic bottles accumulating from urban storm drains, sheets of plastic wrapped in tree branches and roots on banks. Discarded plastic always presents a harsh contrast in the natural world.”
Maule felt a strong connection as he came upon the Wissahickon Creek at the Schuylkill River on the final day of the sojourn and was happy to find it pretty clean. “I’d give the overall course of the river a B+. Pretty clean, but there’s still work to do, especially in places with larger populations like Reading, Philadelphia and even Pottsville.”
Maule said the outcome of the project was twofold. First, its primary goal was to raise awareness that litter IS a problem in the Schuylkill River, and two, the participants wanted to create a map to determine where litter is coming from and what types of litter are most prominent. This will help in developing strategies to prevent litter. “Between a map and the group’s observations made along the way, SAN can help plan targeted cleanups with local communities that need them.”
Maule is no newcomer to environmental activism. Once a week on three-hour hikes in Wissahickon Park for all of 2014, he explored different routes and picked up all the litter he encountered. Aside from well-known problem areas like Devil’s Pool and Walnut Lane Bridge, no section of the park was particularly worse than another. “If a littered item was too large to hike with, like a tire or wooden pallet, I made arrangements to later remove it. I’ve sorted and stored all of it in a shed in the park.” he told us.
“With 52 weeks’ worth of trash, some things were not surprising: the amount of cheap beer cans (330) and plastic water bottles (255), the plastic overall. There was one object of plastic — Mylar balloons, iced tea jugs, candy wrappers, grocery bags — for one object of every other type combined.
“And as one might expect, most of it was gross. But nothing is as disgusting as discarded dog waste bags. The amount of plastic bags — 190 of them, compared to 78 open-air piles — was mind-boggling.”
Right now, Maule is not certain what his next project will be. In the meantime, he is helping the Friends of the Wissahickon as much as he can “because it’s a fantastic organization that really takes care of the Wissahickon.”