The same week we sold our first T-shirt, the United By Blue team (all two of them) trekked out to West Philadelphia’s Bartram’s Garden to pick up trash along the Schuylkill River. This March, we’ll kick off our eighth annual cleanups season — starting at Bartram’s Garden, where it all began. To celebrate this anniversary and to make our co-founders feel old, we took a look back at all of the cleanups we’ve hosted and trash we’ve picked up since 2010.
When you think back on our first-ever cleanup as a company, what sticks out to you the most?
Brian Linton, Founder & CEO of United By Blue: We chose to host our first cleanup at Bartram’s Garden due to its proximity to the city but its otherwise natural setting. It's an amazing urban refuge, and at times you wouldn't know you were in the middle of the city.
I distinctly remember being amazed at the amount of trash we found at our first cleanup. I didn't know what to expect as it wasn’t just the first UBB cleanup, but the first cleanup I ever attended in Philadelphia. Not only did we find large items like tires, but we also found a lot of consumer trash like chip wrappers and plastic bottles. That first cleanup made me realize that urban waterways are in dire need of our help, and therefore we focus a lot of our efforts on cleaning up rivers near urban areas — getting the trash before it gets to the ocean.
Mike Cangi, Co-Founder & Brand Director of United By Blue: I think I spent more time planning that cleanup than any that we've ever done — not because it was the biggest or most successful we've ever had (because it wasn't) but simply because it was the first. Over the months leading up to the cleanup, I volunteered at local non-profit cleanups in the tri-state area and tried to determine exactly how we were going to make our cleanups fun, impactful, and logistically feasible. After a few dozen emails to local parks, I drove out to Bartram's Garden to meet Todd, the head gardener. Todd toured me around the grounds and gave me a little history lesson, and then we agreed to make Bartram's Garden the site for our first ever cleanup location.
Although I had been to the gardens a few times in preparation for the big day, I was still surprised for the types of trash and quantity of trash that we found. We expected to pick up a couple hundred pounds of trash, and we picked up thousands: tires, plastic bottles, styrofoam cups, chip bags. They all seemed like items that just shouldn't be sitting on the banks of the river, yet the banks were covered.
We’ve since hosted at least one cleanup a year at Bartram’s Garden. What comes to mind when you think of this particular site?
Cara, Cleanup Operations Assistant: The first time I ever came to Bartram’s Garden was for a cleanup, and I remember being amazed by what a gem it is. But we found a lot of trash, which surprised me. It really made me think about the way that trash from other locations is carried by the river.
Kelly, Director of Cleanups: I came to a cleanup at Bartram’s Garden before I even joined the UBB team. I remember Mike and I spending a solid 25 minutes digging, and then dragging, a tire out of the river bank. It was awesome!
My favorite part about Bartram's Garden is the boardwalk through the woods that leads to the river. Something about that stretch of walking path and the lead-up to the Schuylkill River is calming and familiar.
How has the site (and your efforts to organize cleanups there) changed over the years?
Mike: Bartram’s Garden has changed immensely over the years. As a destination and historic site, it has now become one of the most beautiful parks in the entire city. When we first started cleaning up at Bartram's, I remember parking and setting our tent up in a gravel lot next to a muddy old baseball field. That baseball field is now a community farm that produces over 12,000 pounds of food annually. And that parking lot is now at the base of the largest community orchard in Philadelphia.
As a cleanup site, Bartram's is no longer filled with the legacy trash that we picked up that first year. Gone are the tires, auto parts, and grills that were once dumped in the park...and that is encouraging. And although we continue to pick up couple hundred pounds of trash every time we are are along that particular stretch of the Schuylkill River, it has become of cleanup of diminishing trash returns, which is a step in the right direction.
Volunteer recruitment has changed a lot over the years too. We are no longer just reaching out to college environmental groups and student organizations. We are now working with national partners and local stewardship groups, and forming city-specific partnerships which have allowed us to grow cleanup turnouts tenfold over the past eight cleanup seasons.
Cara: It seems like the activity at Bartram's is increasing. A new paved path was added to the park this year as well as more bike racks. Volunteers interest is growing. Before we even posted the cleanup listing, I got multiple emails asking when UBB would be there next.
Kelly: The paved walkway has also allowed for greater riverbank and water accessibility at cleanups. We've honed in on a dedicated volunteer population for this site comprised of neighbors, student groups, cleanup veterans, and conservationists, which makes outreach for Bartram's a breeze.
What’s really changed the game since you first started doing cleanups?
Kelly: Two things come to mind. First, the addition of the Klean Kanteen pint cups for drinking water (hello, zero waste). Second is our partnership with the city of Philadelphia (including Philadelphia Water and Parks & Rec), which has increased our overall weight yield, volunteer turnout and capacity to properly recycle and dispose of the materials we pick up at our cleanups.
Mike: When I first started doing cleanups, I was surprised by how fun it could really be. The idea of picking up trash along a river at 9am on a Saturday morning is not necessarily the easiest sell. We had to find a way to make the cleanups fun, engaging, educational and rewarding. It took some time, but we eventually found that the best cleanups are relatively short, fast paced, and involve some type of game and food for the volunteers to participate in.
It sounds so simple, but we realized that if you make the cleanups fun, the volunteers will want to come back. This has helped us build micro-communities across the country where we get to work alongside the same volunteers year after year for our annual cleanups.
How do you think our cleanups efforts will have grown and changed eight years from now?
Kelly: I'd like us to continue to be a part of the solution to keep plastics out of Earth's oceans and to ensure plastics removed from our cleanup sites have a 100% recycled or re-purposed future. The growth of the cleanup team should also allow us to have a year-round, national cleanup schedule and a greater impact in our industry-partner cleanups. We will have a defined voice in conservation and waterway education communication with our customers and volunteers and will remain transparent in our cleanup goals. I would expect we will have hosted an international cleanup or two, as well!
Mike: In eight more years, I believe we have the opportunity to become the largest ocean and waterway cleanup organization in the country. We will be hosting hundreds of cleanups across the US and abroad and will be removing millions of pounds of trash annually, while working alongside tens of thousands of volunteers. I'm excited to get there, but I'm even more excited to get my hands dirty again next week back at Bartram's Garden.
Find out where the cleanups team is headed next — and learn how you can be a part of it.
◆learn more about our cleanups