Trash task force fights Tacony Creek litter

In streams across the country, environmental stewards have made significant improvements in reducing waste water and chemical and industrial pollution, but when it comes to personal pollution – food wrappers, bottles, cups and other trash – retired environmental engineer Kelly O’Day said litter clogged streams are a serious issue. Philadelphia’s Tookany/Tacony and Frankford creeks are a prime example. 

In an effort to clean up the creeks, the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, Inc., board of directors created a dedicated trash task force in December. 

The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) created the TTF Watershed Partnership in 2000 in an effort to restore the stream network as a community asset and address federal Clean Water Act and Stormwater Permit Program regulations. Since then the partnership has evolved into an independent nonprofit and has supported the streams through initiatives such as tree planting, rain barrel promotions, and community involvement. 

Part of the TTF Watershed Partnership, O’Day decided something must be done about the watershed’s litter problem specifically. He’s now leading the partnership’s trash task force. 

The watershed crosses through parts of North, Northwest, and Northeast Philadelphia as well as surrounding suburbs. O’Day said a lot of the litter appears to be coming from the Cedarbrook Plaza and Cheltenham Square malls – not necessarily the stores themselves but the customers. 

“At the personal level there’s a disconnect between walking half a block to a trashcan and just dropping [the trash],” he said. 

That trash ends up in neighborhood creeks where much of it is caught on the banks. For Tacony Creek Park, that means significant aesthetic damage. 

“People are just horrified, and they don’t come back,” O’Day said. 

O’Day worries that this could hurt the park, which because of its large footprint in a dense urban area is not something that could be easily built today. 

“If you took Central Park and had this stream flowing there that had all this trash flowing through it, what would people do?” he asked.

Part of the problem, he said is that the caretakers of the Tacony Creek Park are in the park business, not the trash or litter business. In that sense, this is a problem that crosses department lines. 

Though PWD has not worked with O’Day on the task force yet, Joanne Dahme, PWD general manger of public affairs said the task force is exciting. 

“Trash and safety issues are the reason people do not use Tacony Creek Park,” Dahme said in an email. “If parks are clean and inviting, people will use them and value all of the restoration work that PWD and PPR [Philadelphia Parks & Recreation] are investing in our parks and waterways.”

As they have virtually across the board, the budgets of those who care for the streams and surrounding areas have shriveled, but O’Day remains hopeful. 

“I’m optimistic we can get something done,” he said. “It’s a matter of getting people aware of it.”

One of his first steps is documenting the problem. He has taken on the ambitious task of photographing litter throughout the watershed and using GPS to document where litter is. He hopes to come up with a scientific monitoring system so that in 10 or 20 years people might be able to look back and have a history of litter levels.

The images, which are all available on the trash task force website, stand as a powerful testament of just how littered the TTF watershed is. 

United By Blue will hold a Tacony Creek Cleanup event at the park this April. 

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