Steven Pitschka placed a pack of cigarettes under the thick glass of his coffee table.
He doesn’t smoke, but it was an item he wanted to keep — along with a Barbie doll, a couple sets of vampire costume teeth and an old compass.
Pitschka likes to display the stuff he finds picking up trash on the beach.
He has lived on Park Point for 20 years and has often scooped up litter, but he started dedicating consistent time to it three years ago. “You can only walk the beach so many times, and you’ve got to be part of a solution here rather than just walk past,” he said.
He hits the beach several times a day, sometimes with his wife, Heather, and their dog, Lainey. He covers an average five to eight miles a day; he has logged more than 150 hours so far this year, and nearly 400 in 2019.
He connected with the City of Duluth to let them know their areas of concentration, hot spots and some items they were finding — and it’s a mix of things.
Cans, bottles, cigarette butts, straws and plastic cigar tips.
Toys, a blanket, shoes, goggles. Headphones, a still-working bluetooth speaker.
Pitschka found a record number 30 fishing lures last year; they’re now in his tackle box.
He found a $20 bill floating in the water. A railroad tie. The front end of a trailer.
A Shasta can from the 1950s. Beach glass and broken glass, the latter of which he picks up because people walk around barefoot.
They’ve used a sled to move big pieces of timber off the beach, and he recently hauled off a 100-year-old rusty piece of cable that was 2 inches thick and 6 feet long.
Also, ammo cartridges and corroded live shells.
“Stuff like that, you always find, and who knows how it got there,” he said.
Those he turned in to the Army, and as for other items, Pitschka will set them out on a log near where he found them, or he takes them by the deck at Lafayette, a more visible spot to be reclaimed.
Pitschka has noticed people are generally more conscientious about beach litter, but he is seeing an influx of restaurant take-out containers and plastic cutlery right now.
Not all of the trash is current, though.
Some washes in from Lake Superior. If you’ve got a canoe or kayak, you can see it sitting on the bottom, he said.
The lake also eats away at the sand dunes, unearthing a lot of waste. And, in the spring, the ice on the shore melts, breaking into the dunes, revealing trash buried for “a year, 10 years, 50 years … it becomes part of history; it’s an anthropological find,” he said.
Pitschka grew up on a farm and has spent a lot of time outdoors. He’s a runner, biker, swimmer. He likes what he does because he likes nature.
He has seen more sunrises in the past years than he ever has before. “It’s a little like treasure hunting,” he said.
It’s also a social activity. He has come to better know his neighbors, human and otherwise.
“If you get up real early," he said, "you get to see all the critters that are still out from the night before.”
Pitschka goes out with a 5-gallon plastic pail and a tennis ball launcher, which acts as a trash grabber, when it’s not used to throw balls to their dog, Lainey.
Pitschka also deploys a sledge hammer or an ax to break down bigger items for transportation when needed. Most of the trash is lightweight, but last week, he carried a quarter of a cinder block for half a mile.
You end up taking a little bit of pride in where you live and what people think about where you live, he said. It can be tough when people “treat the beach like it’s their personal trash can.”
Passersby will say: “Thanks for picking up trash.’ I appreciate that. I also tell them ‘Thanks, I need your help.’”
And, it can be tough when you realize it isn’t a one-person show, he said.
If you’d like to pitch in, Pitschka recommends using a pail over a bag to avoid creating more trash. Same goes for latex gloves. Opt for leather or something reusable, he said.
Prepare for hazards, such as needles or broken glass, and stay hydrated. Use sunscreen.
If you plan to do it regularly, check in with the city to share your experience. Plug in your hours and your location to avoid doubling efforts.
“It’s a team effort. We’re making a small dent,” Heather said.
On a recent Thursday, the couple were out, conversing and laughing as the waves gyrated and crashed near them. They bent down over and over, snatching particles of different sizes.
“These itty-bitty pieces of plastic, depending on the mood, might get left,” she said.
“This is telling of the times,” Pitschka said, holding up a face mask on the sandy beach.
Doing this work has shifted some inner processes for the pair.
“Whenever I go anywhere, I’m double-, triple-checking to make sure we got everything up,” Heather said.
“I’m part of the problem with the pollution,” said Steven. “It’s made me realize that humans are a bigger problem than … we like to think sometimes.
“We create trash, and how do we deal with that?”
In college, Steven said he always thought he’d have an impact on the world.
As you age, your world gets smaller, he said.
“Some will have an effect on a bigger place, but you can’t have an impact until you do something with what you’re able to around you.”
For now, he focuses on the miles along Park Point beach, saying: “Let’s make this area the best area that we can.”