This story was last updated in November 2020.
A sandwich shop manager from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has collected a staggering 7,000-plus bags of trash from the environment in just two years. Now, the naturalist’s solo mission is expanding into a community effort as more and more people see the results.
Daniel Toben, 32, first started collecting trash as a student at North Carolina State University in 2009, earning him the nickname “The Trash Guy.”
“I wanted to do something hands-on,” Daniel told Unilad. “I wanted to figure out ways I may be able to help the environment, and I found I could really make the most impact by trying to beautifying the natural areas around me.”
Daniel started by clearing a creek near his dorm that was littered with plastic bottles. Trash collecting soon became a hobby.
Over the years, it consumed more and more of Daniel’s free time. He began sharing photos of his efforts on social media and soon attracted volunteer helpers, using a cell phone app called Fulcrum to keep track of locations covered, bags collected, and “before and after” shots.
In November 2018, Daniel decided to expand. He set up a GoFundMe page, hoping to raise $5,000 to purchase a truck to improve his collection capacity. It took off; to date, the fund has raised over $14,000.
“The profundity came when I realized the cost of leaving what I had found,” Daniel explained. “By recovering these items and either properly disposing of them or returning them to their owners, I was participating in a healing process.
“I wasn’t just touching trash anymore. I was touching lives.”
Beside garbage, both recyclable and non-recyclable, Daniel has picked up several tons of metal, pieces of furniture, thousands of tires, and hundreds of containers of used motor oil, paint thinner, mastic, spray paint, pesticide, liquid herbicides, and antifreeze.
He has also found (and returned) three wallets, a safe—filled with valuable items, passports, and children’s birth certificates—two lost dogs, keys, and a winter coat.
The Epoch Times caught up with Daniel, who said he had been having “a great time” cleaning trash, adding, “I have been working on finding out how to do it every day.”
In April, at the earliest height of social distancing restrictions, Daniel made headlines for taking part in a neighborhood initiative at Durham’s Hillside Park. Responding to a Twitter suggestion for people to collect a bag of trash at the park, Daniel did one better: he collected 16.
In July, having had his paid work hours culled, Daniel told Unilad, “I am now spending between four and eight hours most days at the clean-ups. I’m in my own realm for a while, and it just gives me an incredible sense of pride.
“My friends who have participated in clean-ups have gone from feeling isolated to, by the end, amped and enthusiastic.”
Daniel also hopes that The Earth Stewards will encourage other people to respect their home states. “[A]nyone can do this too,” he said. “You can get the right kind of gloves and trash bags at any gas station and just do it yourself, and it’s not bad work.”
Daniel’s ongoing trash-collection drive is cleaning, beautifying, and making North Carolina a little bit safer every single day.
“Every place I have touched feels lighter,” Daniel shared on GoFundMe, “and as my grandmother put it after I cleaned up around her farm, ‘It feels like the woods can breathe again.’”
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