Courtesy Eddie Olschansky
At least five days a week, Eddie Olschansky can be found in his kayak on the Cuyahoga River, trash grabber in hand.
From big plastic tubes to small plastic bits, from styrofoam to tires and, apparently, basketballs, he retrieves the detritus that collects in and along the banks of the river, hoping to catch as much of it as he can before it finds its way to Lake Erie, where some 2,500 tons of plastic end up every year.
Olschansky, a Cleveland native, has been a one-man wrecking crew on a mission this year, but what was once simply a solo hobby became something a little bigger, now involving occasional small group outings. And though those are limited by necessity for now due to the pandemic, expect a more fully fledged operation in the future, including a nonprofit, large group outings and concerted outreach to teach Clevelanders the easiest way to clean the river is to fundamentally change how they behave as consumers from the start.
We took a few minutes to chat about why he started, what he's seen on the mighty Cuyahoga, and why all of Northeast Ohio should care.
Starting at the start, what made you begin such a dedicated effort to clean the river?
Well, a long story long: It was a hobby within a hobby for awhile. I broke my ankle and I was an avid fisherman. That put a damper on it, fishing from crutches and a wheelchair. So I bought a kayak sight unseen and just immediately fell in love with it. It was great for fishing but it took on more importance — it was great for exploring more closely the waterways that I was enjoying recreationally. I was living in Pittsburgh at the time and our best fishing there is done right in the middle of the city in the middle of the three rivers, underneath the busiest highway overpass, next to the busiest street. Where I grew up, I could throw a baseball from my house to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. All my fishing was about how pristine I could get, how far away from civilization I could get. But when I was in Pittsburgh, it was the opposite, and i started noticing: Hey, there's a lot of garbage here. I never would have imagined.
I know Cleveland rivers have a very similar past, and my family still lived here and I was back here all the time going fishing. Some friends also got kayaks and we got to exploring outside of CVNP, into downtown and the Flats, and it turned out my hometown looked even worse on the rivers than they did in Pittsburgh. So I'd go out and clean up before or after work when I was fishing. And slowly but surely, if I couldn't catch fish, I could always catch trash. I started bringing a bag with me, bought a grabber, and it became more important than fishing to me.
Are there others like you? Are there groups with cleanups like this, maybe not on a weekly basis, but monthly?
So, the difference between what I'm doing and what conservation agencies are doing, and not to take anything away from those amazing groups and what they've done for the degradation of the river and remediating its problems, it's just not consistent enough. You can do beach cleanups once a month or a couple of times a summer, but the trash that was there two weeks before, it'll be there two weeks after.
The Cuyahoga is different. It's fluid. It changes day by day. If we get a lot of weather, you can't hide from the trash. If it's been dry, it's all hidden in the banks and tucked into the vegetation. I know that because I go out every day, and if there's a piece of trash that I can't get one day, if it's gone the next day, it's not because someone else got it. It's because it ended up moving down the river and into the lake. The river, especially those last six miles, it acts as a trash funnel, it all flows downstream, and it comes from not just the city but trash from the suburbs far outside. It all ends up here.
And you do this every day?
It wasn't exactly a concerted effort at first. I've been doing this for years, and only a few people knew that I was doing it, especially with the consistency I was doing it. When I moved back to Cleveland, I was doing this most every day and I saw how much I could get done in just a few hours before or after work. So before I moved back from Pittsburgh permanently I decided to take a couple days off and basically pay myself to be out there for eight hours. And it hit me really hard that I might never go back to work. I was ready to leave. I started to save, so that I could take off as much time as I could from a job here to do this. I felt like it was a way to make a difference, to give back to something that has given me so much joy. You see all the good press for the river, especially last year with the 50th anniversary of the last fire, and it's definitely not the same river it was decades ago, it's a much better waterway, but it's not quite as nice as people want to believe it is. So I budgeted myself at about eight months of doing this, living absolutely minimalistically, just to do this.
As my friends found out, they wondered why I was hiding it. They said if more people were aware, I could do more than I could alone. I didn't come up with the analogy, but if your bathtub is overflowing, you're not going to go downstairs and grab a mop to solve the problem, you're going to first turn off the water. Well, at this point, we're the mop. It almost doesn't matter how much we can do if you're not turning off the faucet.
And the faucet in this case is all the upstream consumerism?
Every time we buy a single-use plastic, we're contributing to that mess in the river and, subsequently, the lake, and many times without really knowing it. You can do your best to recycle and sort your garbage and put it in the right spot, but after its in the bin, that's the end of your responsibility, and we're learning more and more that recycling, here and globally, doesn't go exactly the way we think it's going.
We can't recycle our way out of the problem. The old adage is reduce, reuse, recycle. Well, we don't reduce. We don't reuse. Reducing is the easiest way to make a difference, but it's about consciously making decisions about what we consume and buy and what we do with it once we're done. It goes beyond plastic. It's about food, it's about electronics.
Judging from your Instagram, others have now gotten involved. How did that happen? Did you seek out help? Or did folks see what you were doing and decide they wanted to get in on the action?
I just put stuff on my personal Instagram at first, but a few months ago we really switched gears and it focused on this and I tried to become a little more involved in the community, to set up group cleanups, which we dabbled in last year, but with COVID, I couldn't ask 30 people to come down and borrow kayaks and go out together.
But we do smaller groups on a regular basis, and it's not just people coming down to pick up trash — we talk about the problem and what we can do to fix it. I think without exception my volunteers hit dry land thinking about a product that they might not longer buy, because you saw it floating in the river.
How much do you pick up?
I don't really like to talk about how much weight we pull out: There are sections where I could sit in my kayak and never move and spend two hours picking up the tiniest pieces of plastic and styrofoam, and that's a bag half-filled, and it's, to me, as good as 20 bags filled with plastic bottles or when I get tires out.
But I've done 100 pounds in a day, but it's not more beneficial to me than three to five pounds if those three to five pounds are hundreds if not thousands of tiny pieces of plastic. It doesn't make for a great photo — no one wants to watch me pick up 700 small pieces of styrofoam instead of tires — but it's important.
We hear save the turtles, which I'm all for, I love the turtles, but 11 million people get their drinking water from Lake Erie, and this is a river that dumps directly into the lake. The average American consumes something like 5 grams of plastic a week, and right here, we are the last barrier for plastic entering Lake Erie right about at the point of an intake pump. I can do something at the source.
I have a million pipe dreams and projects but up next, hopefully in the next few weeks, will be a website with a schedule where people can sign up directly and also getting to work on making this a nonprofit this year. (Keep tabs on the progress on his Instagram page
Last year we did just shy of 10,000 pounds. If we can double that... Triple that... We could stop a significant portion of plastic from getting into Lake Erie.