Tackling Cleveland’s Trash Problem, From The Ground Up

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When we talk about Cleveland and, inevitably, improving Cleveland, we can’t help but focus on the sexy stuff. Tourists. Political conventions. Remaking public spaces. Sports heroes. Hip restaurants and gentrifying neighborhoods.
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Our shiniest neighborhoods have an eclectic combination of historic buildings, made over by edgy entrepreneurs, and dramatic new construction projects. Streetscape improvements bring pedestrian-friendly features, attractive lighting, and holiday decorations. We Clevelanders love it, and we’re proud of it.

And, then, far at the other end of the spectrum, lie our most challenged neighborhoods. Weeds grow in sidewalk cracks, boards and broken glass seem to number as many as intact windows, and trash lies everywhere. The trash! Loose, discarded tires; whole bags of garbage; cans, bottles and food wrappers; even mattresses. Residents walk this soul-draining scene daily.

Not every neighborhood needs to be chic downtown lofts or craft breweries or artisan anything. But every neighborhood needs to be clean and cared-for, a place where its residents, no matter how much or how little money they have, can take pride in calling home.

Getting there, to that point of insistent citizen stewardship, can’t come from the government in a neatly packaged public works project. Neither can we rely on police crackdown on litterers and dumpers, nor on rescue by big-picture environmentalism.

Consider Vermont, a place about as different from urban Cleveland as you might imagine, unless you’re counting winter weather. There are no large cities. The Green Mountain State is, indeed, very green. Burlington, the state’s largest city at 42,000 residents, recently became the first U.S. city of any size to run on 100% renewable energy.

This is the headline-generating environmental stuff, cutting-edge earth friendliness. Cleveland is quietly working on this type of high-level environmentalism too. Sustainable Cleveland 2019, a 10-year city-government initiative, aims to launch Cleveland into modern environmentalism and long-term sustainability, the kind of success Vermont is having.

It’s good work, but at least for now Sustainable Cleveland’s high-level work has little impact on the average Clevelander. I’d bet my Vegas money that the vast majority of Cleveland residents have never even heard of Sustainable Cleveland; nor does it matter to Citizen Susie if there’s a “zero-waste” conference where all the plates and forks are compostable. That’s not meant to be a cut on the initiative’s good work, but it is a call to action. Action, on the ground. By the residents, and for the residents.

Long before Burlington, Vermont became an example of high-tech energy efficiency, it picked up trash. The whole state did, starting in 1970, and it still does. Every spring, thousands and thousands of Vermonters come out on the first Saturday in May – Green Up Vermont Day. For the past 45 years, like clockwork.

“Well, duh,” you might say, “it’s Vermont. That would never work here in Cleveland, because we’re different.” It’s not quite that simple. In Vermont, this tradition is credited for spurring other environmental legislation and progress, for making Vermont as “green” as it is today. In fact, a day to green up and clean up can inspire people to care, even those who didn’t care in the first place.

Research shows this, dramatically. People are far more likely to litter an environment that is already littered, or if they see someone else litter. But – get this – if people see someone with a disapproving look picking up litter, the percentage of people littering plummets. When it comes to litter, it matters, a lot, what other people do and think and what a community accepts and enforces as normal.

We need, then, highly visible city clean-up events to make this statement, to exert a kind of positive peer pressure, and provide a shot of adrenaline into neighborhood stewardship and pride. Building on smaller events already taking place, Cleveland is now approaching a unified, high-profile, citywide effort, with the nonprofit organization Green Up Cleveland.

It doesn’t escape any of us that the time is particularly ripe for cleaning up Cleveland if we’re thinking about things like rolling out our city’s welcome mat for a major political convention in 2016. And that’s all the more reason to look our best, but our own citizens are also worth our best. Public works projects from on high are not everything. We – all of us – need to work from the ground up, too.

Sharon Holbrook is a locally and nationally published freelance writer and the founder of Green Up Cleveland, a cleanup event that took place on May 2, 2015. For more information about Green Up Cleveland or to volunteer, follow on Twitter @GreenUpCLE (www.twitter.com/GreenUpCLE) and visit www.greenupcleveland.org.