Talking trash: Meet Cleveland’s volunteer garbage man of the water

The Cuyahoga River is no stranger to tragedy. Known for the infamous river fire of 1969, this waterway was polluted with oil, chemicals, and litter for decades. Even today, more than 2,500 pounds of plastic makes its way into Lake Erie each year.

Luckily, Eddie Olschansky is helping change the narrative with his fleet of kayaks and trash grabbers. Since 2015, he has been kayaking on the Cuyahoga River, fishing plastic and other garbage out of the river.

Rain or shine, you can find Olschansky paddling along the Cuyahoga by himself or with a group of volunteers—serving the city, the river, and the lake as a trash fisherman. In 2019, he established his nonprofit organization Trash Fish to make his mission official. 

While one might think summer is the prime time for littering the lake, a surprising amount of trash accumulates during the colder months, says Olschansky, with blustery Cleveland winds and lake effect snow making for less-than-ideal river debris conditions.

“Winter is what really spawned this,” Olschansky, 32, says. “Countless pieces of litter and trash are pushed into the water from snow plows for months. While you can’t hunt for real fish in the cold, you can still hunt for garbage.”

After attending Kent State University, Olschansky has held several different professional positions. However, he wanted to turn his passion for the environment into a full-time career. Outraged by single-use plastics and excess litter in the Cuyahoga River, he made cleansing the waterway his full-time job last year. He used his life savings to start Trash Fish last year.

“Trash Fish is my full-time job right now,” he says. “I’m figuring out new ways to give people access to the river who don’t normally have it.” 

After buying eight kayaks on his own dime, Olschansky recruited his first volunteer cleanup crew to pull litter from the River in 2017. Just last year, nonprofit Canalway donated an additional four tandem kayaks to increase volunteer engagement. Now, as many as 16 volunteers can join one of Olschansky’s cleanup trips.

But his conservation efforts don’t stop with the kayaks on the Cuyahoga. In the past, Olschansky has hosted both water- and land-based cleanups in the Northeast Ohio community. 

He’s received positive responses—more than 400 people attended these events before COVID-19 hit in March 2020. As restrictions are lifted and group events are normalized, Olschansky says he hopes to see bigger numbers when cleanups resume later this year.

Trash Fish also advocates for sustainability and banning single-use plastics through Instagram. Olschansky created the account three years ago and has accumulated nearly 3,500 followers since then.

“We’re always advocating for ourselves on Instagram,” he says. “We always have something to say about protecting the environment!”

Although social media serves as Trash Fish’s widest reach, Olschansky says he prefers to speak at Cleveland schools and businesses about sustainable practices. In fact, Mayfield Middle School volunteered with Olschansky as part of the school’s “urban plunge” week of service.

“Change happens in the culture,” he says. “The best way to spark change is with the future generation, which is why I prefer to speak in schools.”

Instagram is the best way to reach Olschansky if you’re interested in volunteering. You can find him at @trashfish_cle.

Read more articles by Dana Shugrue.

Dana Shugrue is a graduate of John Carroll University, where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Digital Media and Professional Writing. She is a full-time Content Specialist at Budget Dumpster, and part-time freelance writer for FreshWater Cleveland. When she’s not writing, you can catch Dana taking a run through the metros or sipping a latte at her favorite local coffee shop.