Stories

Trash and Transformation on Schuylkill Banks

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The tidal Schuylkill has seen a lot over the centuries. Once a peaceful respite with healthy wetlands, it changed dramatically in the 19th Century. Mills, factories and abattoirs took over the Schuylkill, dumping waste, chemicals and trash into the river. A dump was even located near the Museum of Art; trash would be shoveled right from the edge of the riverbank onto barges in the Schuylkill.

Luckily, water quality started to improve in the mid-20th Century thanks to efforts like the Clean Water Act. Though abandoned land makes a tempting dumping ground, and the Banks continued to be an unofficial dump for decades. This trash often made its way to the Schuylkill, and from there to the Delaware River and out to the ocean. The trash that stayed on the banks disrupted the ecosystem and became a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

The creation of a trail and greenway on Schuylkill Banks has helped to stem the tide of trash along the river in Center City and parts of South and Southwest Philadelphia. This is in large part because having a critical mass of people by the river makes illicit dumping more difficult, but it is also partially thanks to the work of our intrepid maintenance team and volunteer groups who work to keep the park clean. However, areas of the river that are not yet a part of the greenway are still targets of illegal dumping. A lot of trash also enters the river after being dumped down storm sewers, which flow directly to the river.

The Schuylkill is much cleaner than it was in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but its water quality and habitats are still not quite back to pre-industrial levels. You can help keep the river clean by throwing your waste into trash receptacles, both when you’re on the trail and when you’re in the city. Another great way to make an impact is to donate to SRDC’s annual giving campaign, which helps to fund the ongoing maintenance of the greenway, or by volunteering at a trail cleanup. Learn more about ways you can get involved here.

Want to learn more about the history of trash on the tidal Schuylkill and what is being done to clean up the river today? Check out these great sources: