Claire Prontnicki strolled along The Concourse in Waterville on Tuesday, using a metal wand to pick up trash.

“There a lot of masks, a lot of candy wrappers,” she said. “The thing I see most of all is cups — plastic cups from like Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s. They always have the lid and the straw. I mainly just pick up plastic because there’s so much of it.”

Prontnicki, 64, spends about every other day on the sidewalk where she lives on Western Avenue, collecting litter. Then she treks downtown where it just seems to come out of nowhere. She picks up cigarette boxes wrapped in plastic, plastic food containers and plastic bags.

On Tuesday it was sunny and a balmy 66 degrees, pretty comfortable for late March, as Prontnicki collected plastic.

“I’m really concerned about the sea life and how this stuff washes down to the river and the ocean,” she said. “They cut open the fish and sea birds and sea mammals and there’s all this plastic inside them. They think it’s food, and they digest it and it’s really horrible.”

To some, Prontnicki’s work may seem minuscule in a world where trash is big. She gets that, but acknowledges we have to start somewhere. She’s trying to do her part.

“I’m sure people are wondering who the crazy lady is. I’ve had a few people thank me and a few teenagers being snide. But I completely understand, because when you’re a teenager, the worst thing in the world is if people think you’re weird. They have to disassociate themselves from somebody picking up trash, because that’s weird. I understand that.”

Prontnicki retired three years ago from a 27-year career working in acquisitions at Colby College’s Miller Library. She continues to work — just not for money.

Claire Prontnicki picks up litter Tuesday in The Concourse in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Digging her metal wand into a mound of ice and snow to pluck out candy wrappers, she said she has learned a lot about trash, being so up close and personal with it.

“There are two ways trash gets here. There’s stuff that people just drop and there’s stuff that blows out of the garbage and recycling bins. When it’s a windy day, it just goes all over.”

She began collecting this debris a few years ago because it would blow into her yard and vegetable garden. Then she started walking up the street, upwind of the trash, to try to get ahead of it.

“Once you start seeing it, you really see it, and it’s hard not to see it,” she said. “Now it’s getting so I can’t take a walk without seeing it, so I gather it.”

She typically fills two large purple plastic bags a week that her husband lugs to the curb. But the bags are costly, and she’s thinking about asking the city to take it.

Near the Dollar Tree on The Concourse, Prontnicki eyed three rolls of sweet and sour candy wrapped in plastic and lying on the sidewalk. She scooped it up. A woman with a dog and two small children on bicycles approached her with a plastic bag of dog waste.

“Are you picking up trash? Can I put this in your bag?” the woman asked.

Though Prontnicki’s bag was nearly full, she acquiesced. Continuing toward Spring Street, she said she often collects remnants of old car crashes.

“I’ll find the tail lights and fake chrome. It’ll go for a long way, because they just get dragged along.”

As she walks and plucks, she reflects with humor on her role as the local litter collector.

“I think I’m sort of just the person for this, because before I did this, I’d pick up kindling for the wood stove. I think my ancestors were prize-winning hunters and gatherers. I’m a throwback.”

Prontnicki is not only environmentally conscious, she also likes to help others. She volunteered at the Waterville Public Library shelving books before the coronavirus pandemic hit and plans to return soon. She also is training to be a hospice volunteer.

On her daily walks to work at Colby before she retired in 2018, she saw another chance to do something worthwhile.

Workers had replaced a culvert near a little stream by the road and had left a pile of fresh dirt, so she began bringing plants from home and making a little garden there. The perennials would come up every year. One day, a woman noticed her tending the garden.

“She said, ‘I’ll have to tell my daughter I’ve found Miss Rumphius,'” Prontnicki recalled.

For the uninformed, Miss Rumphius is the main character in a children’s book of the same name, written by Barbara Cooney. Miss Rumphius scatters lupine seeds all over the place to help beautify the Earth. From the way Prontnicki relayed the story, I sensed she was flattered to be compared to Miss Rumphius.

“I just take on little projects, and after a while, they sink or swim,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll pick up trash forever. It’s summer and I’ll be working in my garden.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 33 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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