Sunday, May 3, 2015

Tacony Creek: A plastic bag mess

Retired environmental engineer Kelly O'Day set out to document it.

Tacony Creek: A plastic bag mess

One of Kelly O´Day´s photos of trash along the Tacony
One of Kelly O'Day's photos of trash along the Tacony

About a year ago, Philadelphia resident Kelly O’Day took a tour of the Tacony Creek Park.

He’d been a resident of Philadelphia most of his life, but he’d never been there. He thought it would be a beautiful nature spot.

Instead, the retired environmental engineer, who spent much of his career in the business of water supply and wastewater, was appalled at all the trash he saw in the creek.

The trees were draped with plastic bags. Cups and cans were awash in the shallows.

“To me, it could be almost as nice as the Wissahickon,” he said. “But it was grossly overpolluted. I’ve been in pollution control … That creek has not made a lot of progress.”

So he decided to document the problem.

Ever since, he’s been walking along the creek, photographing the mess and trying to figure out how it happens.

“I’ve got the skills and the background and the interest,” he said. “I’m bound and determined to see what we can do to clean up the creek and its tributaries.”

He’s been issuing a series of reports that he emails, and the latest one went out last week summarizing the sources and extent of the trash going into the Tookany-Tacony-Frankford Creek, which he affectionately just calls “the Tacony.”

He realized one of the major sources of trash to the creek was street litter that flows into the Philadelphia Water Department storm sewer system and is discharged to the creek through an outfall.

The storm sewers are designed to collect trash before it goes into the system, and the department regularly cleans out the inlets.

But O’Day set up an aquarium to simulate a storm. He added plastic bags and some dirt and churned it up. The bags stayed suspended in the water … good candidates for washing into the creek instead of getting trapped in the stormwater inlet.

Philadelphia is poised to take on the issue of plastic bags this fall, in all likelihood. Industry has championed the idea of a more vigorous plastic bag recycling program. Others have proposed instituting a plastic bag fee. Or an all-out plastic bag ban.

O’Day says he doesn’t want to express an opinion on any of that. He just wants the public to be aware of the problem.

“There is a major link between street litter and Tacony Creek plastic bags,” he said. “It’s not just an aesthetics problem. It really is a pollution problem.”

You can see photos and read more about it on his blog.

Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
About this blog

GreenSpace is about environmental issues and green living. Bauers also writes a biweekly GreenSpace column about environmental health issues for the Inquirer’s Sunday “Health” section.

Sandy Bauers is the environment reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she has worked for more than 20 years as a reporter and editor. She lives in northern Chester County with her husband, two cats, a large vegetable garden and a flock of pet chickens.

Reach Sandy at

Sandy Bauers Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
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