Meet some amazing litter cleanup volunteers

A sad side effect of the COVID pandemic has been a large increase in littering. Face masks, disposable gloves, and takeout food wrappers have littered our roadways, empty lots, natural areas, and waterways for the past year. And while the pandemic has made some people careless about their littering, many remarkable groups of everyday citizens have stepped up, despite challenges, to help clean up the trash littered by others.

The Cleanup Queens are an energetic group of about 20 grandmothers from Flagstaff, Arizona. Longing for a purpose and not wanting to sit idly at home, they collected over 175 trash bags full of litter from local hiking trails during the first six months of the pandemic.

Kathi Atkinson, the group’s 70-year-old leader and school lunch-lady comments, “Flagstaff is a wonderful epicenter for trails. Cleaning up trash while hiking provides fabulous exercise and fellowship; plus, we’re doing a good deed!”

An elite and diverse group of 22 avid hikers named the Grounds Keepers cleans up litter in areas ranging from hiking trails to urban boardwalks. Whether taking a walk around the block or hiking the remote Continental Divide Trail in Colorado, Grounds Keeper Francesca Governali finds it next to impossible to walk past litter without picking it up.

“I know from experience that it’s disappointing to hike a trail or arrive at a campsite and see it littered with trash or damaged by other people,” notes Ms. Governali. “There are WAY more masks in the litter I pick up — from finding cloth masks in the backcountry of the Colorado National Monument to lots of surgical and more disposable masks all over the trails and neighborhoods near where I live.”

Peg Kleiner, a Chicago schoolteacher, is also a Grounds Keeper. She uses the trash she collects along a historic boulevard in Chicago and in a nearby forest preserve as a launching pad to discuss environmental sustainability problems and solutions with her students.

“Over the course of 18 weeks, I collected 905 items of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment, such as face masks and gloves),” stated Ms. Kleiner. “When I collected debris in the years prior, PPE was not visible. Now I find it in the forest!”

And eleven-year-old Noah Albert from South Bend, Indiana did not let a global pandemic keep him from cleaning up the shores of Lake Michigan. Wearing a mask and gloves and using a garbage-grabber for safety, Noah not only collected litter, he also created a program called Take 5 for the Great Lakes to ask Great Lakes visitors to pick up five pieces of litter to help keep the beaches clean.

Noah has even had a positive impact on his parents, stating, “Having my parents be involved has only made them more eco-minded! See, it doesn’t matter how old you are; we all can learn new habits and make smarter choices!”

Noah is right. Whether you are an 11-year-old kid from Indiana, a Chicago schoolteacher, a Colorado tree-hugger, or a 70-year-old Arizona grandmother, you can pitch in to both prevent and to collect litter, even during challenging times. So, go and enjoy nature. Take a walk around the block, but make sure not to litter, and let these remarkable volunteers inspire you do your part to safely clean up litter when you do see it.

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