It was quite the scene: dressed in a shirt and tie, Mayor Reed Gusciora (of Trenton, New Jersey) spoke to the crowd from a podium bookended by a giant dumpster and a muddy skid steer. It was the third day of our first cleanup of the year, and our cleanup team was gathered among volunteers, news crews, municipal workers and city administration in the muddy expanse of an illegal dumping grounds along Assunpink Creek in Trenton, New Jersey. In the background, hundreds of soggy tires towered in stacks (the tidy morning work of dozens of volunteers), and a colossal mound of household trash spilled from the street above. In the days before, the cleanup crew had removed nearly 300,000 pounds of decaying shingles and water-logged asbestos from the site. But the transformation was just beginning.
Though Mayor Gusciora’s words felt validating to the UBB team, who’d spent weeks coordinating the logistics of this large-scale cleanup, the two women to which they really hit home were sitting to his left, holding back tears. Kathy and Vanessa had lived on the same block as this dump site for decades. They spent years cautioning their children to stay away from the needles and shattered glass at the end of the block, they worried constantly that a cigarette butt would cause it to break out in a massive fire, and they reported numerous cases of illegal dumping under the cover of night—and sometimes in broad daylight. And now, in a long-awaited act of what the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection called “environmental justice”, the mess was getting cleaned up.
This is the story of how our Trenton cleanup came to be, but also a vision of the city’s future.
Megan and Alec, the master coordinators behind the Amtico Square cleanup, first learned of the site back in November 2019. On an initial scout visit to Trenton, they were struck at what awaited. “It was the largest illegal dump site we’d ever scouted,” Megan said. “At first, we were overwhelmed.”
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection suggested the Amtico Square site for several reasons. First, it had been a mounting issue for years. Neighborhood residents had made numerous reports, but illegal dumping continued to occur. Second, the site bordered Assunpink Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, threatening the waterway immensely. And third, the site was a prominent target thwarting Trenton’s ambitions of creating a vibrant greenway along the creek. Plans, drawn up since the early 2000’s, lay in wait.
But the project was extensive, and the DEP was reluctant to tackle it on its own. Having worked together for the Burlington Island Cleanup, they knew that UBB could be counted on for cleanup expertise and logistical prowess. So we got to work.
The history of the site dates back to 1890, when a livestock facility for the Taylor Pork Roll Factory stood along the banks of the creek. Later, the facility was transformed into a metal factory, and then a rubber factory. When the industrial era came to its dirty end, the location was used for warehousing before the property was sold in 2004 and all buildings demolished. The left-behind remnants of these former tenants remained for decades, as construction debris and torn-down asbestos mingled with the tires, shingles, and household trash that people either paid to dump or dumped there illegally. All the while, in the background, the Assunpink Creek meandered down to the Delaware, quietly delivering toxins to the water source for some 15 million people.
It was a windy morning in February when Megan and Alec pulled up in the UBB Cleanups van, armed with donuts and a megaphone. They were met soon after with skid steers, dump trucks, multiple dumpsters and a chipper crew of DEP members and Trenton city workers. The clearing began.
Just as important (if you ask us) as getting Amtico Square free of debris and garbage was taking care to dispose of all of it responsibly. That’s actually where a lot of the UBB expertise comes into play, and it took weeks of phone calls and coordination to figure out where exactly we were going to send all the water-logged garbage that was hauled out of there. As with all our cleanups, our goal is to recycle anything that can be recycled and properly dispose of anything else. Here’s where most of it went:
We hauled out over 300,000 pounds of shingles on the first day. Those were sent to Georgia on a train, where they will be recycled for road construction or into other material.
Thousands of pounds of concrete will remain on site, where it will be crushed then used to build a skate park.
1264 tires were stacked, cleaned, and picked up by Bridgestone, who will recycle them into asphalt, mulch, or construction materials.
Is currently being sorted by Champion Disposal. What can be recycled will be sent to a facility, what cannot will be sent to a landfill.
When we left the site after two weeks of cleaning up, it was with a sense of accomplishment and positivity. After all, things were looking up for Trenton; having visited countless illegal dump sites and instances of large-scale waterway pollution, it’s encouraging to see a city take real environmental action. And as always, we are honored to be the ones with our boots on the ground, making it happen.
And so the plans for Amtico Square are well on their way. Now that the shingles and tires are cleared, the household trashed hauled off, and the asbestos carefully disposed of, the concrete that remains will be crushed and used to make a skate park. The area will transform into a green space along Assunpink Creek—finally a place where neighborhood residents can send their kids to play. In total, we removed over 755,140 pounds of trash from the site, including over 1264 tires. While it’s true that our first cleanup of the year turned out to be a bigger project than we had in mind, the help and enthusiasm of our partners (most notably the New Jersey DEP, Champion Disposal, the City of Trenton, and Bridgestone) made everything possible. Asked about a takeaway from the first cleanup of the year, our High Yield Cleanups Coordinator, Megan, said, “This cleanup really proved the power of partnerships. When you have the right players in the game, overwhelming projects can seem manageable, and we can accomplish so much.”