After moving from Philadelphia to Falmouth early last year, Alan Robinson found something he half-thought he had left behind on the banks of Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River: lots and lots of litter.
The New Jersey native fixed his attention on the litter problem in college when he was a geology major and a rower on the University of Pennsylvania’s crew team.
“I’d be out rowing on the Schuylkill River, and it was wonderful, but the river was really polluted,” he said last Friday morning, August 3, at Coffee Obsession in Falmouth. “I decided that, rather than do geology on the pre-Cambrian era or whatever, I’d work on what’s going on right now, which ultimately led me into environmental consulting and my career. I did a lot of work with groundwater contamination, hazardous wastes and cleaning up industrial sites.”
After retiring in 2015, he and his wife, Lynne, decided to move to Falmouth where they had often visited, and close to the outer Cape where they had taken their two sons on vacation when they were growing up.
“We saw that Falmouth was a real year-round community, a town very much like where I grew up in Metuchen, New Jersey, and it’s been all of that and more,” he said. “Perhaps the most valuable thing from the perspective of a newcomer to Falmouth is how welcoming, open and supportive people are here. It is a special place.”
After retiring but before moving to the Cape, however, he took advantage of his newfound free time and became active in the Philadelphia rowing community and its organizing body, the Schuylkill Navy.
“We decided we might do more in terms of stewardship for the river and the city, and I volunteered to chair the stewardship committee,” he said. “The first thing we did was have a riverbank cleanup because, as rowers, we’d see the litter coming down the river whenever it rained and we’d see it on the banks. About 25 volunteers on one stretch of the river over two hours picked up 4,600 plastic bottles, plus a lot of other litter.”
To keep the momentum going, the group asked rowing-club members and schools involved in competitions not to use single-use water bottles.
“We got great participation at our big regattas, and as a pilot program in 2016 along with the Philadelphia Water Department, we established a series of four water stations along Kelly Drive in Fairmount Park, where we row and hold our regattas,” he said.
Even though he and his wife live in Falmouth full time now, Mr. Robinson said he is still a member of Philadelphia’s University Barge Club and continues to lead the efforts for the city’s two largest regattas: the Stotesbury Cup Regatta for high school students each May, with about 6,000 competitors, and the Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill Regatta each October, with more than 8,000 competitors.
To reduce plastic waste, the stewardship committee focused on providing water for competitors and spectators, he said.
“You can’t tell people not to bring single-use bottles if you don’t have an alternative, so we had the water stations,” he said. “The next goal was to have a zero-litter regatta, and now we’re starting to work on a zero-waste regatta, where food waste that can be composted is collected to reduce the waste stream.”
After moving to Falmouth last year, he said he had the good fortune to meet teachers at the Sea Education Association and soon began working with students there on ways to reduce plastic in the oceans.
“Action is what I’m really into,” he said. “It’s a huge worldwide problem, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Around the same time, he joined the Cape Cod Rowing Club, which rows on Lake Wequaquet in Centerville.
Also, he joined the Falmouth Water Stewards, a nonprofit organization to protect, preserve and restore Falmouth’s bays, estuaries, salt ponds and fresh waters.
The group is partnering with the Town of Falmouth in an initiative called REfill REuse Falmouth.
Mr. Robinson introduced the water station concept here he helped create in Philadelphia, where each station provides taps to refill water bottles and a basin where pets can drink.
The water kiosk at Peg Noonan Park is the first of two water stations to be installed. Thanks to the support of the Town of Falmouth and grants from the Falmouth Road Race, the second water kiosk will be placed at Falmouth Heights ballfield on Grand Avenue, honoring where the annual Falmouth Road Race concludes.
The group is also working to raise additional funds through grants and donations for the water department to install more water stations throughout Falmouth. They have their sights set on the Shining Sea Bikeway, the Gus Canty Community Center and other populated areas throughout town.
Last July, Mr. Robinson was appointed to the town’s solid waste advisory committee.
“I thought I could make a contribution there,” he said. “Our initiatives focus on how we can help the town reduce the volume of waste because, while we have a very good solid waste and recycling contract now, when that contract ends, it’s likely to be a lot more expensive. So what can we do to help the town control and maybe even reduce costs?”
Among the committee’s priorities are to encourage the town to hire a solid waste manager; to reduce waste by encouraging residents to compost their food waste at home, to bring it to a dropoff location soon to open at the town’s landfill or to hire a commercial firm to pick up the waste; and to reduce litter whenever and wherever possible.
“I noted pretty quickly on moving here that litter was not just a Philadelphia or a city problem; it is a Falmouth problem as well,” he said.
To address the problem, he is now a member of the board of the Cape Cod Anti-Litter Coalition.
Formed in 2016, the nonprofit “focuses on education that changes attitudes and behaviors, leading to a culture where littering is considered socially unacceptable,” the organization’s website said.
In addition to taking part in the town’s annual cleanup event in April and picking up litter as they find it, Mr. Robinson said people need to improve how they do their residential recycling.
“There’s a worldwide issue with China imposing necessary restrictions on recyclables,” he said. “Recyclables need to be clean and not include objects that should not be part of the recycling stream. Those restrictions have really changed the market, so if the town is going to succeed without significantly increasing costs, we’re going to have to have perfect residential recyclables. There’s not enough messaging going on in our community, so the solid waste advisory committee is gearing up to help tackle that.”
Mr. Robinson said there are some good things about single-use bottles. For example, after last year’s hurricane in Puerto Rico, people benefited greatly from the clean water.
“But here in Falmouth, when you’ve got a new filtration plant, single-use bottles are not really necessary,” he said. “Part of the purpose of these water stations, while the town didn’t ask us to do this, is basically we’re marketing Falmouth water.”
Noting that Falmouth residents sometimes view the taste of town water and groundwater contamination from Joint Base Cape Cod and septic tanks as negative factors, he said that, while the worldwide goal is to provide safe drinking water, “here in Falmouth we have safe drinking water. We have pretty darn good drinking water, so we’re hoping to encourage people to drink Falmouth water and reduce all of this waste.”
“Even if it gets recycled, it’s still waste, it’s still costly,” he said.
Speaking more generally, Mr. Robinson stressed the importance of partnerships in environmental stewardship.
“The Earth doesn’t maintain itself,” he said. “It’s OK that we have roads and cities and impervious surfaces—we’re animals too; we’re part of that ecosystem—but just like animals that maintain their nests, we’ve got to maintain ours.”
Compared with the 1960s, when the “dirty water” of rivers throughout the northeastern US was a topic for song lyrics, he said, “some of the things that we’ve accomplished are just amazing and the transformation that has been accomplished is amazing.”
Unlike it was when he was in college in the 1970s, the bottom of the Schuylkill, he said, is now clearly visible in places and the river is home to turtles and bald eagles.
“The same thing has happened in Falmouth,” he said. “It wan’t magic. This was accomplished by the federal government, state government, local government, industry and people doing their part together.”