He's on a one-man mission to clean up trash and help save sea life

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Madis Pihlak uncovers a pile of grocery bags filled with trash underneath leaves alongside Walnut Lane on March, 18, 2020 in Philadelphia. - Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — Madis Pihlak looked into the eyes of a loggerhead sea turtle at a Florida rehab center and knew he had to help.

“You look at that face and they are so beautiful,” said Pihlak, a retired Pennsylvania State University professor of architecture and landscape architecture.

In January, Pihlak and his girlfriend, Toni A. Flanigan, were visiting the Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach, where they learned that a portion of the garbage generated by Americans will end up in waterways. It gets washed into sewers, moves into creeks, streams, rivers, and oceans, and gets mistaken for prey by seabirds, whales, fish, and turtles.

In the wild, the loggerhead turtles, which can live 80 to 100 years and grow to 200 to 350 pounds, eventually become ill and die of starvation as the indigestible products fill their stomachs.

For the endangered loggerhead, the most common sea turtle in Florida, it’s often the ingestion of plastics that bring them to the Center for treatment.

Each year, up to 60 sea turtles, aged juvenile to adult, and over 1,000 hatchlings, which can get trapped in plastic tubes and cartons, are rescued and cared for at the Center.

For Pihlak, 66, learning that statistic was enough to move him to action when he returned home to Philadelphia.

“Literally the next morning I walked around the block with a garbage bag,” said Pihlak, who lives in the city’s Blue Bell Hill neighborhood, where the Walnut Lane Bridge crosses high above the Wissahickon Valley Park. “The next day I went under the bridge.”

Pihlak now spends his days picking up trash in the neighborhood, and recycles what he can.

Each year, Philadelphia spends $48 million attending to its trash-strewn streets and neighborhoods; 90% goes to cleanup, the rest toward litter prevention and outreach. At the other end of the state, Pittsburgh spends $6 million to pick up trash in the city.

There are more than a half billion pieces of litter on the state’s roadways, most of which are cigarette butts and plastics, according to a study by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful and the state’s Departments of Environmental Protection and Transportation.

“The plastic is everywhere and the only way to deal with it is to stop using it,” said Pihlak, originally from Toronto.

It only took a few trash-cleaning outings before Pihlak’s back began to bother him. So, he bought a short-handled grabber, which allowed him to pick up even more garbage.

“People look at me like I’m odd,” he said. “Having the grabber makes me look more official, and not like a street person recycling stuff.”

Pihlak hits the streets two to three times a week, a few hours at a time. He fills up a couple of large black contractor bags with plastics, glass, and garbage.

His most common find? Monster and Rockstar energy drinks, and plastic water bottles.

“They’re everywhere,” he said.

There are also “a lot of” Wawa cups and wrappers, and Wendy’s takeout food containers and french fry holders.

“Then there are those little alcohol shots,” he added. “There are a lot of those on the roads.”

He recycles the aluminum cans he finds. Each is worth 1.7 cents when turned in, but Pihlak doesn’t collect the cash. He views the contribution as money the city doesn’t have to spend.

Flanigan went out to help him one day.

“Within a half hour, your bags are heavy,” she said. “He comes home as if he has been to the gym. It’s a big workout, and he’s a fit guy.”

The neighbors, she said, “call him a saint.”

Pihlak has also turned his sights on invasive weeds that choke native trees, like the American sycamore. As a landscape architect, he understands the lasting damage the vines can inflict on the local environment as they crowd out “understory” plants, like holly and other shrubs, that hold topsoil in place and prevent erosion.

(Once, when he was hacking out a nonnative species of the devils walking stick, a passerby complained that dogs would end up walking on the sharp spines that would soon sprout on new stems. “Dogs are smarter than that,” said Pihlak. “They’re not going to walk on that.”)

In the few short months since starting his cleanup walks, Pihlak has noticed a decrease in the amount of trash being left on the street. But if he takes time off, it picks up again.

“Visual quality has value,” Pihlak said. How roads are built can encourage drivers not to litter. Philadelphia roads have “great bones” but have been trashed for so long that the beauty isn’t noticed.

“People are trashing their city and they’re not taking care of the city,” Pihlak said. “The biggest thing, before tossing something out, is to think, really: Would you do this in front of your house?”

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(Staff photographer Tyger Williams contributed to this article.)

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS