Burlington Island sits almost unnoticed in the Delaware River between Bristol and Burlington City, silently healing from decades of human abuse.
The island is large, roughly 396 acres and even includes a 100-acre lake. For thousands of years, the island was used by the Lenni Lenape people, who refer to the island as Mattenecunk (usually translated as “the island of the pines”) and the Delaware River as Lenape Sipu. The tribe’s sacred sites have been disturbed for centuries by the settlers who first came in 1623.
Today, visitors, the few allowed with permission and permits, are more likely to encounter artifacts from the island’s last century.
Now, the forest grows around, and sometimes within, the ruins of a century-old amusement park that burned down in the 1920s. It winds around a set of long-forgotten mid-century vacation homes. The interior of the island is marked with piles of rusting scrap, discarded bicycles and cars, and even a Depression-era stone bathhouse. The island has been uninhabited since 1976, when several makeshift summer homes were demolished.
Left more or less alone for the last 50 years, as the island is not freely accessible by the public, woods have overtaken much of the island, except for a few sandy spots marking the deposits of infertile dredge spoils. Hardwoods like maple and hickory, rather than pines, dominate the island now. Herons, deer, and even eagles are occasionally spotted. It is quiet compared to the historically industrial towns that border it on either side of the river.
Over the years, many have seen potential on the island. Could it be a tourist destination that highlighted environment and education? Nothing ever materialized, but now a Bucks County company sees an opportunity to clean up and preserve the island in the middle of the Delaware marred by debris carried in by the tides.
Remember when:When part of a Model T was found on Burlington Island
It was this trash that caught Robert Catalano’s eye from afar while he was kayaking the river. Like generations of people and artifacts, he, too, is now tangled in the island’s history.
As the river is tidal at Burlington Island, the tides and currents bring plastics and other trash downriver, getting caught in the sands of the island’s shores and the branches of its shrubs. Yoga balls, shoes, and chip bags mingle with the maple roots and home foundations.
Spotting litter on the island’s western shore, Catalano began thinking. He is the cofounder of the Spearhead Group, an international packaging design company based in Yardley, focused on reducing plastic waste. While Catalano was used to focusing on the source of plastic trash, he could now see an island in his own backyard, gathering the accumulated garbage of the Delaware River’s 300-mile journey from the Catskills to the Atlantic.
After some thought, Catalano decided to launch a new initiative, which will fund volunteer cleanup of plastics on the island: Spearhead Project Earth.
Eventually, Catalano hopes to expand the project to clean international waterways around the globe. For now, however, the project will remain local, bringing volunteers to the island to clean up trash and educate them about its unique history and ecology.
Project Earth will work with volunteers to remove single-use plastics from the island, and bring them to a recycling plant. This hands-on experience has given Catalano a new perspective.
“There’s something about getting your hands dirty. You say you’re about sustainability, but when you do this work and see how you’ve barely made a dent, it’s really humbling,” he said.
The Delaware River’s aquafilter
Whether by design or luck, Burlington Island provides a truly unique landscape for an education-cleanup project.
Burlington Island is larger than most islands in the Delaware, a peaceful stretch of land sandwiched between two historically industrial cities, and only a few miles upriver from Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents.
Though peaceful today, the island bears the marks of a long human history, from old vacation homes to the last remains of an amusement park. Even its lake, perhaps the most unique feature of the island, is an artifact of sand and gravel mining in the 20th century that now blends in with the island’s ecosystem. While vegetation and wildlife have returned to the island, literal tons of scrap metal and plastic still sit stagnant on the island.
Due to its size, its forest cover, and its proximity to the mouth of the Delaware, the island picks up a fair amount of trash, acting like a filter when the tide or river flow is high. Everything from shoes to car seats can get tangled in the brush along the shores wherever the current meets the sand.
“It’s like a great big aquafilter,” said Joe Abate, the current president of the Board of Island Managers, which manages the northern half of the island. “What we have now is a global company like Spearhead that is bringing its moral compass to make the world a little cleaner… (Spearhead) is giving back to the community, and what they’re giving back is helping us bring back the educational, recreational, and conservational aspects of the island.”
Catalano is also concerned about how the plastics on the island can break down, winding up in the river, in fish, and potentially even in humans. A 2019 research paper found that Americans likely consume at least 74,000 particles of plastics per year. This year, researchers announced that they had found microplastics in the human bloodstream for the first time.
“The reality is, if you put garbage in the ground, it can end up in your body,” said Catalano.
Spearhead Project Earth is not the first nonprofit to do cleanup work on the island.
In 2019, United by Blue, a Philadelphia-area group, removed over 96,000 pounds of metal from the island. Although the amount of trash on the island may seem staggering, the Delaware River today is a far cry from what it was even a generation ago, when the river’s water couldn’t support fish in some areas and turned ships’ paint brown.
In 2020, the Delaware River was named River of the Year by American Rivers, which referred to the river’s cleanup as an “American success story.”
Abate, a longtime steward of the island, hopes that one day the island will be fully open to the public.
“The plan has to be developed for access between the city of Burlington and the island managers,” he said. “We have even looked into the cost of building a bridge, but dock is the most expeditious way to get there. At the end of the day, nobody wants car traffic on the island.”
For now, only those with a permit from Burlington City can access the island. Officials caution that only experienced boaters should attempt the crossing, since the river can sweep boaters down or up river. Occasional visitors, without knowledge of the island and its history, can wreak havoc on its resources: one Lenape burial site was destroyed, likely by ATV drivers, in recent decades.
Layers of the past not forgotten on Burlington Island
While bringing volunteers to help clean up the island, Catalano hopes to also educate the public on environmental issues, as well as the island’s rich and varied human history.
The island is one of the earliest points of European settlement in North America, with the Dutch West India Company and Swedes establishing a trading post there in the 1620s. However, Burlington Island has a much longer history with the Lenni Lenape people, whose descendants continue to have a relationship with the river.
“Our nation is based out of Easton,” said Bluejay, a storyteller from the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, one of several Lenape organizations throughout the United States. “I’ve been involved with the river for years, and something about Burlington Island has always appealed to me.”
Not long after the area came under English control, Burlington City was given title to the Island in 1682, with the stipulation that any profits be used “for the encouragement of learning and the better education of youth.” Members of the Board of Island Managers cite this charter as their founding document, which would make the board the oldest elected school board in the United States.
“The Board of Island Managers, along with Spearhead Group, want people to enjoy the island,” said Abate, adding education remains a priority for the board. “Maybe when they come back from that trip, they’ll have a different aspect on life.”
He said the board also discussed increasing access to the island, although liability and emergency access remain an issue on the isolated island.
Dave Babula, councilman-at-large for Burlington City, believes the island offers a peaceful, natural escape for those who can visit. “People have an experience out here connecting to mother nature or the great spirit, whatever you want to call it…unplugging and being human.”
Most recently, the island has been a flashpoint of controversy over the dumping of dredge spoils — soil dredged from the Delaware River — by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Dredge spoils were most recently dumped on the island in 1989; plans to dump on Burlington Island arose again in 2016, sparking controversy and a legal battle. Sandy patches and dead trees mark where spoils have been dumped previously.
Catalano, local officials, and many others believe Burlington Island has a lot to teach the public about our relationship to the environment.
“This is an educational paradise, are you kidding me?” said Babula of the dumping proposal. “And you want to ruin it all, for what reason?”
“[Burlington Island] has a lot to offer, but because of the pollution and access, they just haven’t been able to realize the potential,” said Bluejay. “I would just love for people to go there and enjoy it…and be respectful. There’s a lot to learn on the island.”
Securing Burlington Island’s future
According to Catalano, groups can now begin signing up for volunteer slots on the island at Spearhead Project Earth’s website, or by emailing email@example.com. Volunteer trips will begin in early April and continue weekly likely until October, according to a calendar shared by the organization.
Trips usually include 10 people, and are two hours long: one hour for cleaning up plastics and another hour for education about the island’s history and environment. Catalano says any group, including “churches, Boy Scout troops … family reunions, coworkers” can sign up for the program, which includes passage to the island and is free.
The prospect of a sustained cleanup on the island is exciting to both Lenape representatives and elected officials, who believe the project could also raise awareness of the uniqueness of the island and the effects of pollution.
“Any corporation that wants to clean up and get rid of plastic is a good thing,” said Bluejay. “And they’re not doing it to make money. They have an ambition to clean the Earth, and that’s what (the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania’s) is about, too.”
While the project may one day be global, Catalano thinks the initiative’s strength is in its local ties. Spearhead has also funded a calendar; profits will be split between the Board of Island Managers and scholarships for Burlington-area students. Project Earth is connecting with the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania to incorporate American Indian education into its educational program.
“It feels really good to make an impact,” said Catalano. “I think a lot of people feel like they have to make a big impact and [end up] not doing anything. I think, by starting locally, you can make a big impact in the world.
“This isn’t just Burlington … If everyone did something local like this, what a better place this would be.”