Meet the Cleveland Man Collecting Trash from the Cuyahoga River in a Kayak
Eddie Olschansky goes fishing from his kayak every day. But since 2017, he hasn't been looking for bass or bluegills. Once a BMX biker and woodworker, Olschansky is now an environmental activisit and founder of TrashFish, an initiative focused on collecting plastic from Cleveland's Cuyahoga River.
What led to the creation of TrashFish?
Well, I got my first kayak after breaking my leg in a biking accident because fishing from a wheelchair is … not fun. My mom helped me jam my cast into the kayak for my first trip, and that trip changed the way I view the river; I could see all the trash right in front of me. I started to take plastic out of the river whenever the fishing was slow and soon stopped bringing my rod completely. Eventually, I fell in love with it. I saved up some money, quit my job, and started a social media presence. Volunteers started pouring in.
What is TrashFish to you?
To me, it's a protest against these petrochemical companies that are decimating our lands. Every day, we both pick up trash and discuss the origins of the problems in our river. We rely heavily on volunteers—the more hands we can get out there, the more trash we can pick up—so safety is super important to us. We remind everyone: It's not a race. (I promise, if I'm trying, I will beat all of you.)
What problems is the Cuyahoga currently facing? Is there a solution?
Basically, our rivers are being treated like dumping zones. Normal people don't hold primary responsibility; that goes to big corporations that use plastic packaging. Trash flows from the streets and landfills into the sewers, and then the Cuyahoga. It's dangerous, not just to the environment, but to humans. One day, we might look back on plastic in our drinking water like we do lead in gasoline, so every piece of trash we can keep from the Cuyahoga is important.
Solutions-wise, legislation is the best avenue to success. But individually, it comes down to not buying plastic. That both generates less trash and hits these corporations in the only place it hurts—their wallet. If everyone votes with their dollar, it's gonna make a difference.
What have been the reactions of those around you?
Overall, the response has been amazing. It's wild to me that we've come this far. Sometimes, I'll take people out expecting to teach them stuff, and they'll come back with an article or a study I haven't heard of. Other times, I'll hear that a volunteer has cut back on plastic usage, or they'll find a piece of trash that connects to their outside life—something from a company they work at. Little kids, too, never cease to amaze me. They're setting the tone for what comes next, and I'm stoked for it.
What is your vision for the future for yourself, TrashFish and Cleveland?
Personally, I'm gonna keep trash-fishing until the day I die. For TrashFish itself, I want to see us grow to new cities and make this work in other industrialized waterways. As for Cleveland, I've been proposing passive infrastructure in the river that could remedy this problem without manual labor. I think we can be a beacon for sustainability.
How has your experience with TrashFish affected you?
It's taught me that the means can justify themselves. Taking plastic out of the river doesn't help me, or even anyone alive today, but it helps people years and years down the line. I've learned to do good work, even if I don't see the outcome. Oftentimes, I'll paddle back to a spot on the river that I just spent four hours cleaning, and there's still trash there. But even so, I've learned to stick with it. No matter how hard it is, if you're doing what's right, just keep going. Do your own part. That's all you can do.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.