Amid the pollution of the bay with garbage, Aucklanders find joy

On a chilly morning at 9 a.m. sharp, a group of seven people wearing rubber gloves, hand sanitizer and plenty of trash bags gather on a street corner near Lake Merritt. They greet each other with smiles, ask if anyone needs extra scavengers.

“The common thing you hear a lot in Auckland – maybe anywhere – is that somebody has to do something about it, and we want to tell people that they are somebody and they can do something. do with it.”

Richard Shirk, co-founder of Trash Falcons

These are the Garbage Falcons. A self-proclaimed ragtag neighborhood group that meets here every Sunday morning. Rain, shine, Christmas, New Year’s – they’re here, ready and ready to pick up trash all over the neighborhood.

The group consists of people of different ages and genders. Most of them live in the Adams Point area on the north side of Lake Merritt, but didn’t know each other before joining the group. “We are all neighbors,” says Trash Falcons co-founder Richard Shirk, “who have probably seen each other’s cats in the windows.” Trash Falcon Michael Lang teases Shirk: “We haven’t seen your cats yet. We look every time. We think you’re making these cats up!” Laughter erupts from the group.

Shirk, the alleged owner of the cat, co-founded the group in 2020 with a friend as a COVID-safe event. Now Trash Falcons has grown by word of mouth to over 50 people. Every Sunday five to ten people come.

As the Falcons make their way to the shore of Lake Merritt, they scan the ground for something. They find everything you might expect: drinking straws, plastic wrappers, broken glass, and some unexpected items like a cookie jar and a microphone. “It’s a toy, a nice little toy,” Lang exclaims as someone fishes a small plastic chicken out of the lake with a grappling hook. Someone takes a photo for the group’s Instagram page, where the Falcons show off their most intriguing finds.

For items that are far out in the water, Trash Falcon Ana Marie Jones got creative by inventing debris collection devices. “We call it a witch’s finger,” says Jones, holding out what used to be a retractable feather duster. Jones removed the feathers, revealing a flexible wire that can be shaped to hook tricky debris. When Trash Falcon Ethan Gregor spots something farther than the witch’s finger can reach, Jones tells him, “You could take the hook. ”

Gregor makes several attempts to throw a hook tied to an extendable dog leash into the trash. When he finally hits her, the entire group applauds as he quickly wraps her around the dog leash. It’s like a sport, Jones explains: “It’s just incredibly nice to watch because some of the [the Falcons] sports in their veins like when they were in high school [or] college. So they are literally promoting it with zeal and gusto.”

Jones’ creativity with garbage collection inventions earned her the nickname Q, after the James Bond character creating gadgets. Like a regular, she’s seen her fair share of junk. “My favorite thing the Trash Falcons have ever collected while I was there is what we called a ‘trash diamond’,” says Jones, referring to what was actually a large glass paperweight. . Shirk found it ideal to play a proposal to his wife. Jones says the moment was a poetic reminder that “there is beauty in the trash. Is love. Just so much goodness.”

Although, according to Lang, among all this stuff there is also “the largest number of cigarette butts in the whole world.” They also find soaked cardboard boxes, condoms, half-eaten packets of chips, and too many different pieces of plastic to count. Whatever they find is met without judgment. Mostly, there is a sense of elation in the air, a positivity that, as Richard points out, is the key to Trash Falcons’ main goal: empowering ordinary citizens to improve their communities.

“Usually in Oakland – and maybe anywhere – you often hear that someone has to do something about it,” says Shirk, “and we want to tell people that they are someone, and they they can do something about it.”

Jones explains that the band has changed her attitude towards trash. “All of us now, regulars, can look at [a] heap [of trash] and say, “We can do this in 5 minutes.” We could take it out completely.”

Garbage falcons clean up as much trash as they can. But Oakland has a lot of garbage to clean up, and the Garbage Falcons are just one group of people occupying several blocks in a big city. Debris on this land could end up in the watershed, says Jesse Olson, director of habitat restoration for the nonprofit Save the Bay. “In total, the Oakland watershed consists of 15 major streams and over 30 tributaries.”


Garbage falcons go to what they call a “garbage dam” to clean up the garbage that has accumulated there.

Rain dumps debris into storm drains. Storm runoff leads to streams and Lake Merritt. And those flow straight into the bay and the ocean.

Some cities, such as San Francisco, collect and filter almost all storm water. But most East Bay cities, including Oakland, don’t.

Oakland does have installed about 200 waterway litter collectors to catch litter before it enters the bay, including 6 in Merritt Lake, but all of these devices only account for litter coming from just over 3% of Auckland’s total land area. “We don’t have enough,” Olson says, referring to the devices.

They are effective, but not universal in the literal sense. Sometimes garbage traps overflow with garbage or heavy rains throw garbage into the bay. In addition, installing and maintaining more garbage collectors is costly. As well as storm sewer treatment plants. So at this point, says Olson, “you would have to hire a huge army of volunteers and students every single day to make an impact, a very significant impact, and clean up all this pollution.”

Oakland is also working on upstream solutions, such as street sweeping and a plastic bag ban, to prevent debris from entering storm drains in the first place. To meet the San Francisco Bay Water Board’s requirements, Oakland is now requiring Oakland to cut its garbage emissions to zero by 2025. This will be a difficult and costly task for the city. As for Lake Merritt, because of the debris, it is still considered a degraded waterway by EPA standards.

As Garbage Falcon Jones says, it’s an endless amount of garbage. Back at the lake, Jones reflects on what the Falcons would do if one day they all woke up and the trash just disappeared. “First, we are going to have a phenomenal party. There’s no doubt about it,” says Jones, “but if for some reason we find ourselves in a situation where for some reason there just isn’t anything to clean, other things must happen in the neighborhood — things that need things that need to be cleaned. things that need to be fixed, things that just need people’s love and care. So I have no doubt that the Falcons will find something new.”

The love and care of the community is at the heart of what inspires Trash Falcons. Jones, whose career has been in emergency management, says: “One of the things you can do to make your communities exponentially safer and better on all fronts is to get to know each other and be closer to each other. And whether it’s something like Trash Falcons, whatever it is, find a way to shamelessly love your community, get to know your neighbors, and you’ll see things get better.”

It would take much more than one group of neighbors to completely stop contaminants from entering the bay. But Trash Falcons’ goal is not to single-handedly solve the bay’s garbage problem. This is to remind people that they are the ones who can do something – be it with their time, work, votes – based on the belief that community care is contagious. This is at least a drop in the bucket or a few hundred cigarette butts in a trash bag.

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