“My wife tells me I failed at retirement,” says Richard Guffanti with a smile. He “retired” in 2011 at age 65 after teaching science for 24 years to Philadelphia high school students in Germantown, University City, Northeast Philly (Samuel Fels), and North Philly (Girls High). It didn’t take long for him to get restless. “I hate feeling useless,” he says. “I guess work is just in my DNA.”
Ten years later, Guffanti, now 76, has tackled and, in part, conquered, one of Philadelphia’s most notorious and intractable problems: litter. And he’s done it the old-fashioned way: meeting neighbors, partnering with organizations, and doing the work, day in and day out.
Guffanti’s first post-retirement project was helping the Spruce Hill Community Association to maintain a hidden gem bird sanctuary created in 2011 by sculptor Anne Froehling. He also began volunteering at a local library, where he met neighbor Andrew Wheeler, founder and president of executive search firm Lincoln Leadership. Wheeler shared Guffanti’s affinity for outdoor activities and public service. They got to talking about community improvement and decided to bag leaves along 63rd Street near the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center.
Guffanti says the City’s existing leaf removal services fall short: Crews don’t come around often, and piles that get rained on resist vacuums and leaf loaders. So, he and Wheeler started filling the gaps. In December of 2017, after countless hours clearing leaves, the pair turned their attention to trash. Little did they know, they were on the verge of something bigger.
“I always tell my children to never assume someone is doing something about the problem that you see,” says Temwa Wright.
Relative to other big U.S. cities, Philly has both insane amounts of litter and a dysfunctional waste management bureaucracy. The City of Philadelphia Litter Index ranks areas along Cobbs Creek Parkway “moderate to severe.” The worst sections are on the park’s south end, and, typical of under-resourced neighborhoods populated predominantly by people of color, have been long neglected.
By March of 2019, neighbors started recognizing Wheeler and Guffanti, noticing the work they were doing, and pitching in. The men were joined by Temwa Wright (executive director of Pamoza International) and Lawrence Szmulowicz (staff attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance and avid birder) and called their Facebook page Cobbs Creek Park Cleanups. They adopted a patchwork of land along the parkway between Catharine Street and Woodland Avenue that amounts to half the park, and split it into 10 zones that they assigned to individual “ambassadors.” The first ambassador was Wright.
The group’s long-term results are undeniable: the half of the park the volunteers clean is vastly clearer than the other half. Guffanti, a meticulous keeper of data, has used a luggage scale to weigh bags of trash. The average weight for a full, 33-gallon bag is 14 pounds, with, no lie, a standard deviation of 2 percent. Ambassadors count bags at every cleanup. In 2021, their 135 cleanups removed approximately 6 tons of trash. They’re on pace to remove nearly 8 tons of trash in 2022.
The power of word of mouth
Originally from Malawi, Wright lived in comparatively pristine Washington state and Alaska before moving to Philly in 2000. “I was really shocked with the amount of litter that was in the city,” she says. Not a fan of idle criticism, she took matters into her own hands. “I always tell my children to never assume someone is doing something about the problem that you see. Don’t just wait and see it day after day after day. You have the power to do something about it.”
Wright and Wheeler run monthly Zoom meetings to plan weekly and monthly zone cleanups. Guffanti is responsible for organizational structure. His monthly cleanups take place the first Saturday of each month along the Parkway between Whitby and Florence. Wright’s weekly cleanups take place along the Parkway’s intersection with Catharine Street from March through November. She calls them “power hours.”
Cobbs Creek Cleanups has grown mostly by word of mouth, in spite of Guffanti’s efforts to enlist members elsewise. Zone 4 ambassador Bethany Teigen, Chief Mushroom Observer for the Philadelphia Mycology Club, texts club members to join in. Wright enlists volunteers ages 8 through 70 — mostly women — simply by asking passersby to join her next time.
The litter they collect varies by zone. Zone 2, near basketball and tennis courts, is full of empty water bottles. The trash in Zone 9, a thin stretch of woods along the Parkway, is mostly food-related, presumably tossed out of passing cars’ windows. There’s not too much in the way of illegal dumping, thanks in no small part to Guffanti, who has pestered the city into installing gates and boulders to block park entrances to vehicles transporting would-be dumpers.
… if the group could double their efforts, they could keep all of Cobbs Creek Park … more or less litter-free.
In 2021, they collected 56 tires. So far this year, they’ve picked up 58, mostly from a single site, during an MLK Day cleanup. They’ve also found, although not frequently, piles of concrete, wood pallets, and other construction-related wood.
There’s one spot, though, just upstream and across the creek from historic Blue Bell Inn on Woodland Avenue, that’s an out-of-control illegal dumpsite. On one visit to the park, at least four couches were at the bottom of a ravine, in the creek. This site — which Guffanti points out is on the Delaware County side — shows the limits of volunteer cleanups. Without enough manpower or the right equipment, it’s not feasible to take on this mass of mess.
A short walk up the recreational path from the dumpsite is a small wooden bench that Wheeler installed to sit by the creek and relax. To keep it from being stolen, he chained the bench to two cinder blocks. Recently, Guffanti found both the bench and its cinder blocks in the creek. Undaunted, he and Wheeler fished it out and chained it to a tree, where, on a recent visit, it sat, surrounded by cigar wrappers, grocery bags, disposable masks, just waiting to be picked up.
Other than $2,000 per year from the Clean Air Council, Guffanti and company are operating on no budget at all. He wants to keep it that way. “I want people who have their heart in it,” he says. But they haven’t been going it completely alone — they’ve benefitted from informal partnerships with several organizations:
- Philadelphia Parks and Recreation gives the group litter pickers and hauls away trash bags.
- Fairmount Park Conservancy posts the group’s cleanups on their website and gives supplies for participating in their semi-annual Love Your Park events.
- Darby Creek Valley Association partners with them for cleanups 3 to 4 times a year.
- United by Blue partners with them for an annual cleanup.
Guffanti estimates that if the group could double their efforts, they could keep all of Cobbs Creek Park — that is, the areas immediately bordering the park’s recreational trails — more or less litter-free. As for the creek and surrounding floodplains, Guffanti says after years of neglect, they’re just too much to tackle — at least, for now.
The work can be thankless. But Guffanti fights litter as relentlessly as the litter accumulates. His email signature reads:
The optimist knows how bad things are.
The pessimist learns how bad things are every day anew.
Pessimism is a luxury we cannot afford.
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