On any given day, Chapel Hill’s Daniel Toben can be seen collecting trash along the highways, in parks, or waist-deep (and waste-deep) in a stream. In 2020, he collected 2,300 bags of trash and has already collected 343 bags in 2021.

Can you tell me about the stream by your dorm at N.C. State?

I found this stream on campus that was filled with plastic bottles, and it was depressing. It was such a disrespect to the environment.

I cleaned it up in secret and kept it from people, and it was kind of my sanctuary. It was the place where I had got my peace on campus. And then I did it so much that it became part of my personality. You know, there’s the soccer players and the basketball players; everybody who does something enough, it becomes part of them. So that’s what happened to me.

In an average week, what does your cleanup process look like? And how many bags do you try to collect each week?

In an average week, it’s usually two cleanups. I’ve been doing it for long enough that people email me, or text, or message me on Facebook, and tell me where I need to go and clean up. For instance, the [North Carolina Department of Transportation] has been emailing me the places that I should clean up, when it’s really their job.

Sometimes I’ll do it for like an hour at a time. Yesterday, I had two work shifts, but they were separated by two hours. So I went and cleaned up near Southpoint Mall, Highway 751. I put in my earbuds, and I have a good time. I make jokes to myself about how ridiculous I am on the side of the road and how dirty I look. I laugh about the things that people throw away. And then I put it into bags and call it a day.

Why does cleaning up litter mean so much to you?

I think that for us to be as successful as possible, it requires us to try to strive for a standard of excellence. And I think that when people choose to litter, it’s just a sign of them compromising—that we are less than what we are actually worth, and the environment is less than what it’s actually worth.

Plastic takes over 500 years to decompose, because it’s very inert. And we have created half of all the plastic ever produced in the last 15 years. Dealing with trash and plastic is an inevitable part of our future because we are only producing more and more of it every year. I think of it as, people can either be apathetic and choose to join that club, or they can choose to join the club of people who care and who are motivated to make the planet a better place. 

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