Millersville University sophomore Mark Winther picks up litter during an Earth Day cleanup event at Windolph Landing Park in Lancaster Township Saturday April 17, 2021.

Stacked atop a pile of worn, dirty tires, a collection of rubbish now sits inside the lobby at Millersville University’s welcome center, offering an unusual sight as students and visitors pass through.

It’s more than a haphazard stack of garbage. In fact, it’s a work of art — a sculpture of a flopping fish created by members of the school’s art club out of litter they helped to clean from the Conestoga River last weekend, ahead of today’s annual Earth Day.

Now, club President Tina Borchert, a sophomore art student, said she hopes their sculpture will help to bring on-campus awareness to issues like litter and pollution.

That’s especially true, she said, because the trash used to build it was collected Saturday from the water and streambanks along Windolph Landing Park in Lancaster Township, just a few miles away from the school.

“I didn’t think they were going to find so many big things,” Borchert said, marveling at the volume and variety of litter collected during the cleanup. “We got a lot of trash.”

Millersville fish sculpture

Millersville University art students who participated in an Earth Day-related cleanup at Windolph Landing Park Saturday, April 17, 2021 built this sculpture to bring additional attention to issues like litter and pollution. The sculpture is on display inside the Lombardo Welcome Center at Millersville University Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

Appreciating a key resource

Providing students that first-hand insight was kind of the point of getting involved in the cleanup, said Assistant Professor Justin Mando, who teaches science writing at the university and sits on its Sustainability Committee.

“It’s a major resource that we have right near campus, and we wanted to get students out and involved,” Mando said, referring to the river. “I don’t know if it’s as appreciated as it could be.”

Hoping to make that connection, Millersville educators like Mando invited their students to join conservationists at the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association and the Conestoga River Club, who hosted the Saturday cleanup.

They were hoping to get 25 volunteers between the three organizations, but the number of willing trash collectors quickly grew to about twice that size, Mando said. He guessed that could be attributed to the ongoing spread of the contagious COVID-19 virus, which has limited students’ opportunities to gather indoors.

“Students are looking for opportunities to get together,” Mando said. “It’ll be the first time that I’ve had a chance to meet most of my students. I’ve never seen them except for on Zoom.”

Pandemic-related trash

Safer outdoor spaces have become wildly popular destinations during the pandemic, bringing renewed interest in outdoor areas like Windolph Landing Park, according to Ted Evgeniadis, a Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper.

However, the pandemic has also led to increased litter — protective medical waste like face masks and rubber gloves, as well as plastic take-out food containers from restaurants that ceased in-door dining as a pandemic precaution.

Still, he’s hopeful that events like Saturday’s cleanup will help to inspire the next generation of stewards working to keep pollution out of local waterways like the Conestoga, as well as the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay, which are just downstream.

“This is all local,” Evgeniadis said. “It’s all about protecting local water quality, the creeks that flow through your backyard.”

For Todd Roy, the Conestoga River Club’s founder and president, the reasons to protect the local river are numerous. He spoke about the obvious environmental concerns, but also the seemingly endless hours of recreation the river presents to anglers and kayakers.

“I could just go on and on,” he said, worried that appreciation has waned for others. “We lost sight of it. It became a drainage ditch in the backyard instead of the centerpiece of the community that it should be.”

Making a difference

All of that discussion served as a backdrop for Saturday’s cleanup, when dozens of repeat and first-time volunteers walked along the Conestoga’s riverbanks, picking up tiny pieces of trash from below weeds and wildflowers. Others donned hip waders and walked into the waterway, some helping to remove discarded tires from the mud below.

Among them was Millersville sophomore Kevin Nix, who said he often reads about pollution and other environmental issues in the news, where they seem “daunting.”

“It’s been a concern. You ask yourself, ‘What can you do?’” Nix said, pointing to volunteer opportunities like the cleanup as an answer.

Also participating, Nadine Garner, associate professor of psychology, stood in a grassy field ahead of the event, pointing out the volunteer group’s makeup, which included students studying a wide variety of subjects.

“This just really shows that sustainability is really for everybody,” she said, speaking from behind a protective mask. “The synergy is amazing.”

2 dozen tires removed

All told, about 60 volunteers pulled nearly two truckloads of trash from the river and it’s banks, Mando said. That trash included more than two dozen tires, he said.

It’s those materials that Borchert and her fellow art club members — Oscar McDonah and Heidi Nauss — used to create their fish sculpture, which is now in the school’s Lombardo Welcome Center. There, it sports a dorsal fin made from a traffic cone attached to a body built with a discarded bucket, beer cans and other reclaimed trash.

“I think it definitely raises awareness about what is going on,” Borchert said.

By all metrics, Mando said he considers the cleanup a success.

“There is something really fulfilling about cleaning up a place that, when you arrived, looked a lot worse than when you left it,” Mando said.

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