SUP Garbage Man greets the day
Can one man on a stand-up paddleboard make a difference in the amount of trash in our waterways? SUP Garbage Man believes so. Inspired by a childhood game, SUP Garbage Man started documenting his litter picking activities in the spring of 2019. Six months of sunrises later, he’s collected over 400 cubic feet of trash and inspired litter pickers across the globe. Not bad for a hobby he does before most of us get out of bed.
Heads Lifestyle: Hi SUP Garbage Man. How was your paddle today?
SUPG: Hey there! It was a bit chilly due to the fall weather rolling in, but it was still a beautiful morning to be on the water! I was able to witness another gorgeous sunrise while filling my board with trash for another successful haul!
HL: Do you paddle and litter pick every day?
SUPG: I wish I could and I do try! As of today, I’ve gone out 106 days over the last 165. That averages out to about 4-5 days per week. There are a few rare occasions when my work and travel schedule won’t allow me the time, but by far the biggest challenge is dealing with inclement weather.
HL: What first inspired you to start picking up trash?
SUPG: I’ve been picking up trash since I was a kid. It is something I attribute to my mom. While walking our dogs, my mom would challenge my sister and I to collect things for every letter of the alphabet (A-Advil package, B-Bottle cap, C-Can, D-Doritos bag, E-Earplug, F-Flyer, G-Golf ball, and so on). We never really found an item for every letter, but it was fun and kept us entertained. More importantly, it alerted me to the presence of litter in our world. As for using my SUP to pick up trash, I’ve only recently begun. The first time I brought a crate on my board was in May 2019 and now I’m hooked!
SUP Garbage man typically starts his day in the dark before the sun has begun its ascent on the horizon.
HL: How much garbage have you collected so far?
SUPG: I thought you’d never ask! As of November 2019, I’ve collected nearly 400 cubic feet of trash! To give you a visual of what that amount looks like, it is roughly the same size as a 1960s VW bus!
As of November 2019, I’ve collected nearly 400 cubic feet of trash!
HL: Wow! That is an impressive amount of trash for one person to haul out of the water. What do you do with it all?
SUPG: I started bringing everything home so that I could sort it out and be sure the trash ends up in a bag. I didn’t want anything to blow out of a public trashcan and back into the river. My sorting process involves separating the recyclables and any hazardous materials from the trash and then roughly sorting the remaining trash by size. Basically, this just means that I’ll put anything bigger than a football directly into our county trashcan and I dump the rest of the trash into a 35-gallon bag. Sometimes I even find extra-large items like a kid’s slide, a Rubbermaid wheelbarrow, half of a dog kennel, etc. Ideally, I’d like to do a better sort and cleaning so that more stuff could be recycled, but it comes down to time.
HL: Impressive! It sounds like you fill up your home trashcan weekly, is that true?
SUPG: Yep! The county issued us a family-sized trashcan when we moved in. But since it is just my wife and I, we have never come close to filling that thing up. That is until I created SUP Garbage Man. Now it’s full weekly!
SUP garbage man has collected enough trash in the past year to fill a VW micro bus.
HL: You usually paddle the historic Potomac River. It’s such an important river for millions of people, why do you think people trash it? What is at the root of the trash problem?
SUPG: This is a really good question. While trash in the water (or on dry land, for that matter) is a problem in and of itself, I believe it is merely a symptom of a systemic human problem. Our 21st century culture has a throwaway mindset fuelled by the impulse to upgrade constantly. In turn, this leads to a proliferation of single-use items. I do think that a majority of the trash that I find was originally in a trash bin. Wind, animals, inconsiderate people, etc. then knock over that trash bin and the previously-binned trash eventually gets to the river by wind or rain runoff through storm drains.
But I believe that there is a deeper problem than how the trash gets to the river. When I jog along the river on a Monday, I see one overflowing trashcan after another from folks who were visiting the parks over the weekend. It’s sad that they aren’t aware of what can—and will—happen to the trash.
In my opinion, the root of the problem is the sheer amount of single-use items produced to accommodate our collective throwaway mindset. I know we can't change this behaviour overnight—if at all. We need a cultural change with a goal to reduce the amount of waste we generate.
I’d like to think that litter picking is growing and hope that I’m helping to inspire others. I believe that for a true change to occur, we are going to need to normalize litter picking.
HL: You are on a one-SUP Garbage Man mission to clean your section of the river. Do you feel part of a greater community of litter pickers?
SUPG: Honestly, I didn’t use social media until I created SUP Garbage Man so I really didn’t know litter picking was so widespread. It was only after I started posting about my finds that I discovered the litter picking movement. Since then, I have definitely come to feel like part of a bigger family. The support from folks around the world has definitely inspired me to dedicate most of my free time to this venture! I enjoy connecting with like-minded folks around the world and have frequent conversations with people in Spain, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Japan, England, and of course, you guys in Canada. I’d like to think that litter picking is growing and hope that I’m helping to inspire others. I believe that for a true change to occur, we are going to need to normalize litter picking.
Paddling in colder weather presents its own unique challenges, including the need for wetsuits, booties and gloves making picking significantly more difficult.
HL: There seems to be no end to the feral trash problem. What keeps you picking?
SUPG: When I consistently see so much trash, I seriously start to wonder if what I’m doing is even making a difference. Would it be easier just to go paddling and turn a blind eye? Sure. But then I remind myself that picking up just one thing can make a difference to one animal. Picking up two things improves those odds, and so I fill the board again and again. I’ve had several people from around the world reach out to me to let me know that my efforts have inspired them to start picking up trash when they are paddling too. It is very humbling and a step in the right direction. I know the value of hard work and how change takes time. It took us humans a long time to create this problem; we’re not going to solve it overnight.
HL: Does it ever feel hopeless?
SUPG: I wish it weren’t true, but there are times when it feels like my efforts are a lost cause. It’s especially disheartening when I spend an hour or so cleaning one spot on the shoreline only to have the same amount of trash back 24 hours later. It’s also saddening to see the leading edge of the incoming tide—it is usually a stream of trash that I could pick for hours. Filling my board with trash so frequently has opened my eyes to the seriousness of the greater cultural problem.
Filling my board with trash so frequently has opened my eyes to the seriousness of the greater cultural problem.
HL: You've made some modifications to your SUP board. What's been done and why?
SUPG: Oh man, I don’t know if we have time to cover all of my innovations. Overall, this venture has been, and continues to be, a learning process. I consistently get to channel my inner creativity to build, modify, and repurpose things in order to collect more trash. When I first started SUP Garbage Man, I was using my fibreglass SUP board and a couple milk crates. I have recently switched to an inflatable SUP from iRocker. I’ve built a couple bins: one large bin for those large haul days and a smaller collapsible crate for travelling. I knew I needed a bigger bin after I filled up my milk crates a few times. I also knew I’d be travelling with my new inflatable SUP and needed something I could pack up and take with me. I built both bins out of ½ inch PVC and a couple old laundry bags. I’m always tinkering and tweaking my setup and process. I’ve also been able to repurpose several items I’ve found in the river! For example, I’m using a wooden broom handle to hold open the back window of my truck, a scrub brush for cleaning my board, a piece of PVC for a flagpole, and a cup holder designed to hang on a car window to hold my water bottle.
SUP Garbage Man tweaks his paddleboard and tinkers with his gear in order to collect more trash.
HL: You start your day very early. Tell us about the sunrises?
SUPG: It is truly a remarkable experience to be out on the water early and watch the sun peek over the tree line. In order to see the sunrise, I have to launch before there is any sunlight. It can be a bit daunting to be out on the water in the darkness and under the moonlight. The sunrise starts with a subtle glow on the horizon and then transitions to purples and pinks across the clouds. If there are no clouds, the sky changes from the dark blue of night to oranges and yellows and eventually to the light blue of day. The most stunning sunrises are the ones when the sun shines through clouds beyond the horizon. It creates long, bright orange rays across a dark blue sky. But that’s not all; it’s really a full immersion experience. In addition to the visual masterpiece of the sunrise, I get to hear the birds wake up and start chirping. They do it as soon as the horizon starts to glow. I get to feel the breeze start to flow as the sun warms the cooler night air. It’s all really quite surreal. I truly appreciate the peacefulness and the connection to nature. This is another motivator that keeps me picking.
Plastic water bottles are everywhere…everywhere! It’s somewhat ironic because it means that we’re polluting water with materials that are meant to protect water.
HL: What is the strangest thing you’ve ever found? What item do you find in the greatest volume?
SUPG: I get this question a lot! While I haven’t found anything extreme yet, I have found several items that are just baffling, like a 7-foot Styrofoam log, a toilet seat, and a full overnight makeup bag. I think the strangest thing is a baby’s car seat. It was fairly clean and was just floating in the river. I’m still not sure how it got there. The most common item is plastic water bottles. They are everywhere…everywhere! It’s somewhat ironic because it means that we’re polluting water with materials that are meant to protect water.
I have found several items that are just baffling, like a 7-foot Styrofoam log, a toilet seat, and this BMX bicycle.
HL: What is your biggest trashy pet peeve?
SUPG: Laziness! Laziness when it comes to disposing of trash properly. This really irritates me. You see it everywhere—trash that is in the wrong place. If a trashcan is full, bring your trash to another one. If you can’t find one, bring it to your car and drop it off at the next gas station. Simple! The thing that frustrates me most is when I see discarded items that are still in good condition and could easily have been donated to a local charity or thrift store. In fact, I’ve even grabbed a couple of large Rubbermaid tubs out of the trash. Yes, I just admitted to picking out of a dumpster. But, there was absolutely nothing wrong with them and I now use those bins to sort recycling that I haul out of the river. In my opinion, it all comes down to laziness.
HL: What is your advice to others who want to make a difference?
SUPG: Just start doing what you can do. Find something in your comfort zone that you enjoy as a medium for your actions. That way, you aren’t making a drastic change in your life, but rather using your life to make a drastic change for the environment. For me, that is being on my SUP and picking up trash. I enjoy the peacefulness of being out in nature and the freedom of being on the water, BUT I also really enjoy using my trash picker to grab trash. Simply put, know your passions, strengths, and capabilities and how they fit in!
I usually tell them that I’m fishing for trash because I’m guaranteed to catch something. I can even get a few laughs when I mention that I have no size limit nor do I need a license when the 5-0 comes floating around!
HL: Do people ever stop and question what you’re doing?
SUPG: People are definitely curious about what I’m doing. I’d say there are three distinct reactions. First and foremost, there are folks who will stop and tell me “thank you for picking up.” Sometimes they’ll ask more questions. They help me stay motivated to keep picking. The second group will ask if I’m fishing. I usually tell them that I’m fishing for trash because I’m guaranteed to catch something. I can even get a few laughs when I mention that I have no size limit nor do I need a license when the 5-0 comes floating around! The third, and most common reaction I get is the blatant, long-duration, cross-parking lot stare. I don’t blame them, they’re curious. It can be a bit de-motivating, but it’s very helpful to know that there are folks in the world who support my efforts. Thank you for the support and helping me realize that what I’m doing is appreciated and truly matters.
The most common reaction SUP Garbage Man gets while picking is the blatant, long-duration, cross-parking lot stare.
HL: Are you familiar with the Butterfly Effect, named after an ancient Chinese proverb that says the power of a butterfly’s wings can be felt on the other side of the world? Do you believe your morning paddles are contributing to a global change for the better?
SUPG: Yes, definitely! This is exactly what I’ve based my social media efforts on. I started out with the simple and attainable goal of inspiring just one other person to pick up a piece of trash. Maybe that one person would carry it forward and inspire someone else to pick up trash. Who knows, I could inspire someone to take up the cause with our governments or big businesses. I have already had several SUP folks from around the world tell me I’ve inspired them! Just this morning I received a message from a woman in Poland who is planning to do some picking because of what she has seen me do. It’s very humbling and reassuring that my litter-picking wings can be felt on the other side of the world. And so it begins.
Single-use items, specifically plastics, have become such a staple in our everyday lives that we have become blind to their proliferation.
HL: What do you feel would be the single most effective way to rein in the trash problem?
SUPG: This is a question I struggle with daily. In my mind, there are two aspects that are interconnected: we, as humans, need to eradicate our throwaway mindset and associated habits, and in doing so, we can significantly reduce the demand signal for single-use items.
Single-use items, specifically plastics, have become such a staple in our everyday lives that we have become blind to their proliferation. It’s mind-boggling how much plastic already exists. Sure, most of this stuff can be recycled, but we know it doesn’t all make it to recycling centres. I have seen companies making changes to more sustainable packaging and reducing the amount of plastic used. It is a step in the right direction, but if we could reduce the demand for so many products we’d be truly making progress. We should limit what we throw away by limiting what we buy. Do I really need a new gismo or gadget because I saw it on TV? Do I really need the latest TV? I think if we, collectively, can reduce our throwaway tendencies, companies will be more likely to change their products and packaging.
Filling his board with trash so frequently has opened SUP Garbage Man's eyes to the seriousness of the greater cultural problem.
HL: Does every piece of trash make you angry or have you found a way to manage the micro-aggressions of polluters?
SUPG: Ha! Ha! The only trash that makes me angry is the trash that I try to grab with my picker three or four times but can’t, and then I am forced to stop and do a u-turn so I can try to get that piece of trash on my board! I may or may not have used multiple expletives to describe a straw or two.
HL: What is your wish for the future?
SUPG: I wish that more people would be ok with picking up trash. It’s not hard to pick up a water bottle in the parking lot or a soda lid on the beach. I think there is a mindset that ‘I pay my taxes so that the city, county, state, can pay people to clean up.’ And I totally get it. However, like my mom taught us with the ABC collection game, if people were willing to pick up just one piece of trash they would become more aware of the trash that is everywhere. In turn, people would hopefully start making smarter consumer choices and be more apt (or less lazy) to ensure their trash gets into a proper receptacle. Having collected so much trash the past five months, I’ve become hyper aware of trash I see everywhere. If a majority of people were to become more aware, we could shift our collective mindset and change the demand for what companies produce.
I wish that more people would be ok with picking up trash. It’s not hard to pick up a water bottle in the parking lot or a soda lid on the beach.
HL: Is paddling while litter picking a more strenuous workout?
SUPG: Not exactly. I do try to get some good paddling in during my sessions but I usually just tool around slowly. Instead of speed and cardio, I’ve found that I’ve improved my balance more so than anything. It’s almost like standing on an exercise ball for an hour or two while bending, squatting, and reaching. The challenge becomes fine board control and balance while leaning over the side and not falling in.
Enjoying the warm fuzzy while returning to shore with another load of trash.
HL: What will you do this winter when the snow flies? Will you continue your SUP litter picking?
SUPG: Good question! I hope to keep paddling as much as I can, but realistically, I’m likely going to have to limit my trips to the river. Paddling in the winter presents its own unique challenges.
HL: You give to nature and wildlife by cleaning up the environment; what do you receive in return?
SUPG: Nothing material. I just enjoy the warm fuzzy from knowing I did something.
Listen on Spotify
A SUP Garbage Man curated "Pickin' trash 'till the sun goes down" Mix
Check out SUP Garbage Man's website here
Go further here: potomac.org
And follow SUP garbage Man on Instagram at: @sup.garbage.man