Arctic Splash Cartons: Litter Scourge of the River Wards or Works of Art?

Jake Sauer, the guy behind the blog Fishtown Juice, on why he collects photos of the ubiquitous discarded drink cartons.

Arctic Splash isn’t made in Fishtown. It isn’t made in Philadelphia, or even Pennsylvania. But that hasn’t stopped the budget-priced iced tea — basically water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid and something called “tea solids” — from becoming synonymous with River Wards culture.

Drunk from the school-lunch fold-top cartons that bear that kitschy frost-capped logo, Splash — “the Faygo of Fishtown,” according to one poster — has long been an iconic beverage north of Girard. (No one’s really sure why.) Manufactured by Massachusetts-based Dean Foods and distributed regionally by its subsidiary, Lehigh Valley Dairy, it’s peddled at shops and delis throughout the area, and residents have capitalized on that ubiquity to turn it into a point of pride. The so-sweet tea’s responsible for inspiring band names, T-shirt designs and boozy variations at local bars.

It’s also inspired a tremendous amount of litter, a reality not lost on seventh-generation Fishtowner Jake Sauer. For every person he comes across sipping one — “I literally see babies in strollers drinking Arctic Splash out of a straw,” he says — he’s able to spot multiple cartons, in varying states of decomposition, trashing up his Fishtown streets.

“I grew up drinking it and didn’t think much of it,” says Sauer, who currently lives in relatively Splash-free Brewerytown. But once he started traveling to other cities for his job with Philly-based startup Ticketleap, it put the “pervasive issue” of local littering into context. “Don’t get me wrong — I was born in Philly, I will die in Philly,” he says. “There’s something about that grittiness that makes us so appealing as a city. But that also makes us stand out [negatively] to a lot of people.”

A few years ago, Sauer began doing his little part, picking up every discarded Arctic Splash carton he’d come across on walks or runs and disposing of them — but not before snapping them in their natural habitat. The photos eventually grew into Fishtown Juice, a Tumblr and Instagram account dedicated to documenting trod-upon Splashes.

Sauer, who geo-tags each of his spottings (he’s pushing 300 right now, with no shortage of material), found that the triangular “fish head” shape formed by Girard Avenue, Frankford Avenue and York Street is the area with the highest concentration of Splash litter by far. The blocks surrounding local businesses known for carrying Splash, such Belgrade Deli at Belgrade and Columbia, are particular hotspots.

Like cavity-causing snowflakes, “no two are alike, even though they’re all the same carton,” says Sauer, who sees them scattered everywhere from storm drains to patches of grass. (He once collected close to 60 while strolling a six-block grid with his fiancée.) Some are fresh, still bearing the vivid yellow, blue and brown of the original packaging; others have been “sitting for so long that they have mummified.” His favorite find to date, a perfectly flattened half-pint, is currently hanging, framed, in his kitchen.

Sauer doesn’t know if there’s an active solution to changing “the sidewalk is my waste basket” mentality that many Philly citizens, as well as the city, recognize as a civic shortcoming. But he has no plans to stop chronicling them and cleaning them up. And though he doesn’t indulge in Splash as much as he did as a kid, he hasn’t sworn it off completely. “They’re enjoyable every once in awhile,” he says. “They taste like water, with a little bit of teabag and a lot of sugar.”

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