SUP Garbage Man Cleans Up Well (and You Could, Too)

Local resident removes heaps of garbage from the Potomac River, one SUP load at a time

A unique view of river grasses. (Photos: @SUP.Garbage.Man)

Alexandria, VA – It’s 5 a.m. Joe Wright hits the Potomac River on his stand-up paddleboard (SUP) before the sun rises, often having it to himself. Wright began paddling seven years ago and over time he developed a true love for it.

One morning in May 2019, he observed, not for the first time, many plastic bottles and other pieces of trash in the water, either lapping the shoreline or in open water. Joe pulled some out, but quickly realized he needed a receptacle to put them in. First he placed milk crates on his SUP to contain the trash, but needed more lightweight capacity.

Beautiful lighting helps to illuminate the trash problem.
(Photos: @SUP.Garbage.Man)

And so Joe built himself a nifty basket made with a laundry bag he’d already pulled from the river and PVC tubes. Thus, the SUP Garbage Man was born.

Wright’s routine has been honed over time. “I used to just start picking up all the little stuff as soon as I hit the water. But now I head out to the big pieces first, and there are always plenty of little items to collect along the way,” he says.

Plastic bags are everywhere, unfortunately.
(Photos: @SUP.Garbage.Man)

Because Wright needed a way to grab items from the water while standing up, he procured his first set of reachers – think of huge tongs – at the Variety Store in Hollin Hall (what don’t they sell?). Demonstrating impressive balance on the SUP, Joe extracts plastic bottles, tennis balls, doll heads, shoes, plastic barrels, traffic cones, BMX bicycles, Styrofoam, plastic bags, food containers, jugs, you name it. He repurposes some items, like the wooden dowel (formerly a broomstick) that keeps the back window of his truck propped open since the hydraulic arm died. He plucked foam pipe insulation from the river to wrap around his reachers to keep them afloat should they end up in the water. He’s installed a quaint boardwalk around his home from salvaged lumber, a nod to his coastal upbringing in Florida.

In addition to his basket, reachers, and an extra trash crate to hold trash, Wright carries his GoPro cameras. His photographs are exquisite, whether capturing sunrise over the Potomac, the river’s sometimes roiled waters, or sad, swollen heaps of the garbage he’s collected. He photographs each day’s catch and posts to his Facebook and Instagram pages. Wright takes time to edit and punch up his photographs, the currency of social media. The more “likes” his posts garner, the more awareness he’s created.

The sun rises on New Year’s Day over the Potomac.
(Photos: @SUP.Garbage.Man)

It didn’t take long for people to notice. Wright met French Ambassador Philippe Etienne when, as an eco-citizen winner, he received a G7 AWAKE watch for his sustainability efforts. SUP Connect magazine ran a feature story on the SUP Garbage Man in January 2020, and he’s been covered locally by The Gazette and WUSA-TV. He’s partnered with the Werner Paddles Sustainability Team and their Healthy Waters Initiative.

Truth be told, Joe’s not in it for recognition. He started collecting river garbage because he was tired of hearing complaints about pollution and the environment, and this was how he could help. Wright wants people to be more aware of the trash they create. He’s not here to preach, scold, or shame. But trash comes from people, whether accidentally or on purpose. “I just hope people will pay attention to their actions and the part they play in all of this trash,” he says.

What’s next for the SUP Garbage Man? Whatever it is will be to build awareness. Maybe a blog, maybe sponsoring clean-up events with his budding nonprofit (supgarbageman.org). “The more I do this, the more I seem to collect stories, along with the trash,” he says.

The SUP Garbage Man watches as a Southwest flight descends at Reagan National Airport.
(Photos: @SUP.Garbage.Man)

Has the coronavirus impacted his operations? Not to this point. Most of the trash Joe collects has been in the river for a while, and he’s always practiced safe and healthy sanitizing habits. What drives him to do this? “Good question,” he says. “It can get boring paddling out here. Once I started picking the trash up, I just kept doing it. It gives me something to do and makes me feel like I’m part of the solution.”

Follow the SUP Garbage Man on Instagram and Facebook, @SUP.Garbage.Man. Visit his website at supgarbageman.org to learn more. And clean up after yourself.

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