How to Organize and Conduct a Neighborhood Cleanup
Take a look around your neighborhood – do you see any litter on the sidewalks? What about in the grass? The majority of realtors believe that litter can reduce property values from 7% to 12%, and home buyers report that seeing significant trash would definitely factor into their decision to make an offer on a given property. Litter is not just unattractive, it can also present a physical danger (such as sharp edges on cans and broken glass) or can increase the danger of disease, serving as a reservoir for germs and biological hazards, not to mention the danger to wildlife.
Litter happens in every neighborhood, on every street, and in every business district, either through unintentional actions like loose trash flying out a car window or intentionally with discarded fast food wrappers and cans or bottles. Fortunately, there are things that neighborhoods can do to deal with this problem, and it’s a solution that has the added benefit of bringing together a community and fostering a sense of pride for where you live.
Neighborhood cleanups can range from a 100 person plus mega event with corporate sponsors and news coverage to a small 3-5 person group removing the litter. Regardless of the nature of your event, there are several strategies to keep in mind to keep your event safe, productive, and fun!
If you’re interested in putting together a cleanup event for your neighborhood, there are many approaches you can use to increase participation and maximize safety.
First, check into any local ordinances or laws regarding trash pickup. If your group is going to be on a roadside, you may need to have traffic redirected or safety officers assigned to keep both the pedestrians and motorists safe from harm. You may also need to file a permit, and have a clear plan in place for what you are going to do with the garbage collected. If you want to recycle the cans, glass, and plastic, check to see what types of materials your collection facility can accommodate and how they want the material separated.
Once you have a firm understanding of the legal requirements, you need to pick a date. Generally clean up events happen in the spring and fall, when the weather is not too hot or too cold. To make the date easier to remember, consider having it fall on a holiday, like Earth Day, the Spring Equinox, or Beltane (aka May Day). Take into consideration what the weather might be like, and try to pick a day that isn’t typically busy with other things, such as Mother’s Day. Saturdays or Sundays tend to work really well as most people work Mondays through Fridays.
The next step is to find some friends and get the word around. You can advertise your effort through social media, checking to see if your neighborhood has their own social media pages. If not, most cities and towns do and they might agree to post your announcement. Consider putting up a few flyers, at least in common areas around your community like the mailboxes and community pool or playground if you have one. Talk to the homeowners’ association about adding an announcement to a neighbor flyer, or having them email residents if they maintain a listserv. Also get the word out at your local elementary, middle and high schools, since teachers and faculty might be willing to share the message in class or through local PTA meetings. Then lastly, reach out to area businesses, particularly local mom-and-pop shops and restaurants. They may be willing to post a flyer or might even be interested in organizing a group of their workers to join the event. Don’t be afraid to ask… Everyone has a vested interest in keeping their community clean, and many hands make light work.
Regardless of the methods used to recruit volunteers, try to organize and maintain a list of your volunteers with their contact information. It never hurts to send out a reminder of the event the day before to make sure people haven’t forgotten. And when planning out your groups, consider adding a couple of people to man a vehicle that can provide logistical support to your clean up crews. A car can carefully travel from group to group picking up full trash bags, handing out more empty bags, hauling off the larger pieces of debris, and handing out water to keep everyone well hydrated.
Consider also letting your local paper and radio stations know about your plans. They can help draw attention to the event while it’s happening to raise its visibility which can help spur participation.
The need to promote and maintain a safe working environment is critical for any neighborhood clean-up event. Your volunteers will be handling sharp edges, drivers may not expect to see people on the side of the road, and unexpected events can always create particular hazards. Stress safety to your crews before anyone gets started, and encourage people to keep one eye on the trash and the other eye on their environment, watching for cars and other dangers.
- Cars and roadways. Traffic accidents present the greatest danger to roadside clean up crews. If working alongside busy roads, be sure to utilize your city’s services to redirect traffic, set out cones and warning signs, and provide protection. Have your crews wear safety vests with reflective material and urge them never to step in the street if at all possible.
- Broken glass, sharp metal, etc. Unfortunately, trash often includes material that can pose a significant risk to the person tasked with cleaning it up. Glass, needles, sharp edges on metal cans and even biological waste can be very dangerous to your clean up crews. Insist that all members wear good construction-quality gloves that are resistant to punctures and cuts. For added protection, wear your thick gloves over a pair of nitrile gloves like those used in clinical settings. Advise your crews to not handle anything they think might be dangerous or hazardous, including biological waste or discarded needles. If found, mark the spot with a ribbon or flag and call your town’s sanitation department for removal.
- Trespassing. Unless you have written permission, advise your volunteers that they must not go into people’s yards. If a piece of trash is within arms’ reach of the sidewalk, that’s generally okay to pick up. But any significant venturing into another’s yard may be met with hostility. The mission here is to clean up all public spaces… Private spaces have to remain the responsibility of private property owners.
- Water. Be sure that your volunteers stay hydrated. Even if the temperature isn’t hot, people can put a lot of sweat equity into trash pick up.
Plan Your Attack
Regardless of the size of the area to be cleaned, a plan of attack can be essential to maximize your group’s effectiveness and minimize overlap. If you only have one small group of people, a simple map showing your walking path may be all you need. If you have multiple groups, consider dividing your neighborhood up into grids or street sets so that all areas receive equal attention. Generally speaking, you’ll want your groups to be between 4-6 people each, allowing for a couple people on both sides of the road or pathways. Give each group plenty of supplies and consider a strategy to refresh those supplies and haul away trash mid-cleanup. If the groups will be recycling as they go, be sure that you have well-labeled bins or bags for the different materials. And be sure that everyone collecting trash knows your final destination for disposal. You might consider setting a time that all of the individual groups reconvene at the disposal site for a group picture, to recognize and thank all of your volunteers and encourage future participation.
Planning a neighborhood clean-up can be a daunting task, but like any activity, you can simply break it down into manageable chunks and tackle each task one at a time. Don’t be afraid to identify and recruit one or two people at the beginning to help with organizational responsibilities. One person could help recruit and organize volunteers, another might take responsibility for logistics like supplies, safety vests and gloves, and final disposal of collected trash. And don’t be afraid to start small. You may only get a small handful of people to help with the first event, but with proper planning and positive word of mouth, the event could grow to a truly neighborhood-wide event in future years. But most importantly, enjoy what you are doing and take comfort in the part we all can play in making our world a little better each and every day.