YORK, Pa. (WHTM) — On Earth Day we are reminded to celebrate and care for our planet, but one York resident has taken on the challenge of cleaning up the environment year-round, one piece of plastic at a time.
John Naylor, known on Instagram as “susquehanna_plastic_pickn_1000,” set out to collect 25,400 plastic bottles and bags — enough to fill a truck at the business where he works as a yard jockey — out of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries.
Naylor says he’s been removing garbage from the environment for at least 20 years, but about four years ago he started documenting the process on social media, hoping to expose others to the problem of plastic waste.
When he started picking plastic from in and around the Susquehanna, Naylor would come away with a garbage bag or two loaded onto his red canoe. Then that increased to five or six bags stuffed in the back of his teal pickup truck. When it became a challenge to dispose of all the plastic he was removing, Naylor worked with some local organizations to set up dumpsters for the trash.
So far, Naylor has collected about 16,640 bottles and bags. “It’s not too difficult to find plastic here, unfortunately,” he says. Even sites he’s picked before are cluttered with garbage again the next year.
Bags, detergent bottles, balls, pieces of Styrofoam, Nerf bullets, tires and even motor oil containers are among the items Naylor finds along the river. But the worst thing he finds, he says, is plastic bottles.
“A plastic bottle coming out of the river is just horrible because of the cumulative effect,” says Naylor. Americans purchase tens of billions of water bottles every year and millions of water bottles every hour. “To me, it’s just discouraging that we produce a plastic bottle made to throw out, but it’s not made to break down, it’s not made to go away,” Naylor says.
Plastics never disappear completely; instead, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces. A recent PennEnvironment study found microplastics in every body of water it tested, which was more than 50 waterways around Pennsylvania.
Naylor says seeing all the ever-present plastic around the Susquehanna is discouraging, but it also motivates him to keep going forward with his mission to get plastics out of the river. “I’m very aware that I’m not going to clean the entire Susquehanna River by myself. However, when I can give the problem some exposure…maybe that’ll make a difference,” he says.
Naylor often goes plastic picking alone, but sometimes he’ll work with colleagues or members of organizations that share a similar mission, such as the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association. He hopes that individuals who participate in cleanup events or follow his work will be inspired to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics, helping eliminate the problem of plastic pollution by refusing plastic in the first place.
“The Susquehanna River, it’s a beautiful, ancient river that you can’t have a bad day [on], even if you’re picking 100 bottles of plastic out of the river,” Naylor says. “It’s still a beautiful place to come, I just want to make it a little bit better.”