Taking out the trash: UMN professor removes 5,600 pounds from Lake Hiawatha

Sean Connaughty has been removing trash from Lake Hiawatha since 2015.

<p>University of Minnesota Art Professor Sean Connaughty removes trash from Lake Hiawatha and repurposes it to create works of art. A work made of reclaimed styrofoam by Presley Martin is seen on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 in Minneapolis.</p>

Syd Stratman

University of Minnesota Art Professor Sean Connaughty removes trash from Lake Hiawatha and repurposes it to create works of art. A work made of reclaimed styrofoam by Presley Martin is seen on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 in Minneapolis.

Sunny Lim

Over the last three years, one University of Minnesota professor has focused his time outside class to clean a local lake — removing thousands of pounds of trash from Lake Hiawatha.

University art professor Sean Connaughty began picking up trash from the shore of Lake Hiawatha in fall 2015. With help from his community members, Connaughty has successfully removed approximately 5,600 pounds of trash from the urban lake.

Connaughty said he hopes his work will inspire others to protect the environment and discourage people from littering. He also wants the City of Minneapolis to recognize his efforts and take action.

After walking his dog near the lake often, Connaughty said the lake and its wildlife started to grow on him.

“I became very attached to the lake and noticed the biodiversity here, and really appreciated it as a place to find solitude,” Connaughty said. “But as I began to get closer to the lake, I began to notice the trash problem.”

The community initially thought the trash in the lake was coming from the nearby creek. At first, Connaughty believed the creek theory, but he soon became suspicious.

Testing a theory, Connaughty wrote his address on a ball, dropped it in a storm drain gutter in front of his house and waited. After it rained, he found the ball in the lake next to the storm sewer, demonstrating that the trash from the streets goes into the lake.

The storm drains — not the nearby creek — were the culprit.

“I shared that information with the community, and I found, like myself, many people in the community had no idea that the trash from our streets, and the litter and pollution from our streets, is going directly into the lake, and there’s nothing in the way of filtration or protection to stop it,” Connaughty said.

Throughout the project, community members have realized they need to work together in order to meet a common goal: to have a clean, unpolluted lake.

“I am a friend, supporter and local resident invested in seeing a better outcome for this small ecosystem, Lake Hiawatha,” said Penny Fuller, a community member.

As a multimedia artist, Connaughty said he wants to communicate the community’s goal with artwork made of the trash he has collected. 

“I’m working on creating a proposal for a public art project with a group of other people,” said Connaughty. “I want to get community input and create a public art project that is integrated into the infrastructure that will be created in the mitigation system to treat the storm water.”

Kyle Samejima, a local resident and project team member, said the goal of the project is to show people the amount of trash being pulled out — confronting the problem of pollution.

“We need to heal our relationship with the planet, and facing the problem by looking at the trash as a start,” said Samejima. “It’s critical that we all, whether we litter or not, understand the impact of our consumption, whether it’s tossing a coffee cup from Starbucks, a plastic bottle of water or a potato chip bag.”