Evanston RoundTable, July 7, 2021
Hey Evanston, I hate to break it to you, but you’re a slob. I know, you love it here, Evanston is heavenston, blah blah blah. So why toss trash around with such careless abandon?
The following litany of litter was noted recently on a short stretch of a downtown street: rubber gloves, pieces of paper, store receipts, candy wrappers, tissues, Band-aids, napkins, masks, socks, signs, bottle caps, straws, plastic cups and containers, and of course, the ubiquitous cigarette butts. All within a few dozen steps of a garbage can.
These items are the flotsam and jetson of modern life, blowing like tumbleweeds in the streets, on the sidewalks, across the parkways, through the parks. I even saw trash in front of the Ecology Center. I mean…really!
Some people are trying to make a difference. Neighborhood volunteer groups work with the City to clean parks and plant native species. Downtown Evanston contracts with a cleaning service to remove refuse six days a week from the 140 trash containers located downtown and power wash the sidewalks. The City maintains an “Adopt a Park” program to encourage residents to clean local parks and report maintenance issues.
Readers of this column may remember that I recently “adopted” Butler Park, which runs from Bridge Street to Emerson along the east side of the North Shore channel. On my first few forays into Butler last April I filled half a dozen large garbage bags with trash. The park looks much better now, almost pristine, though one Monday morning after what must have been a particularly busy weekend I found the tot lot strewn with plastic cups, Styrofoam containers, and discarded food – all within steps of a trash container. And of course, after the Fourth of July it looked like a war zone.
That’s the part I can’t understand. Don’t people care? Aren’t they proud enough of Evanston to want to keep it clean? Aren’t they even vaguely aware of what a trashy environment says about their lack of pride and respect for the City they call home?
I spoke about this with Lawrence Hemingway, the City’s Director of Parks and Recreation. Evanston’s 77 parks covering 300 acres fall under his purview. He waxed poetic about the variety of parks in our hometown, from active green spaces like Lovelace and James parks bustling with youth sports programs to “passive” parks along the lakefront and dotted throughout town where people can sit, walk or ride bikes. He also expressed frustration with the state of litter. “Of course it bothers me,” he said with a sigh. “We have trash bins all over. I can’t understand why people don’t use them.”
But he spoke with pride about the various volunteer efforts underway to maintain park gardens as well as the Adopt A Park program, which has a website page with instructions on signing up for one of the dozens of parks available for adoption. The program is designed to “enhance the quality, usability, and lovability of our parks…” and seeks volunteers “to assist with litter pickup, preservation, and maintenance of our parks.”
They are “responsible for debris and litter removal along with notifying City staff of any safety hazards or concerns,” according to the website. “Any projects beyond debris and litter control, including but not limited to planting, pruning, or repairs, must be approved prior to implementing and conducted alongside City staff.”
All of which sounds more officious than it really is. I signed up as the Butler Park steward and listed my wife as co-coordinator. Mainly she cheers me on.
There are currently nine parks that have been adopted: Butler, Burnham Shores, Chandler, Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary, Harbert Payne, Leahy, Mason, Oldberg and Smith. That leaves 68 waiting for someone to help out and spruce up. Someone ready for a feel-good challenge. Someone like you.
As I wrote in April, cleaning the park is good physical exercise and leaves one with a virtuous feeling of accomplishment and civic mindedness. It’s also educational. The empty cigar packets that I find in mysterious abundance throughout the City are not, to misparaphrase a saying misattributed to Freud, about cigars. As my son informed me, budding entrepreneurs evidently hollow out the tobacco, pack the cigars with marijuana, and consume or sell them as “blunts.” Live and learn.
So, what to do? Here are a few ideas:
Start by posting signs that remind people that littering is against the law. Section 184.108.40.206 of the City code states plainly: “It shall be unlawful for any person to throw or deposit litter in or upon any street, alley, sidewalk or other public place within the City except in public receptacles or authorized private receptacles.” Fines range from $10 to $750, and/or community service. Place the signs where people tend to congregate and litter.
Second, add more trash bins, and place the ones already deployed more strategically. At Butler there are two receptacles, one by the tot lot, the other near Emerson Street. The first gets a lot of trash, the second very little. Why not move it closer to the tot lot? At nearby Harbert Payne Park, I counted 16 trash bins. Harbert Payne is bigger than Butler, but not eight times bigger. At Lovelace I saw 13 trash bins and five recycling containers near the fieldhouse. Are they all needed there? How about sharing the wealth with other parks?
Academicians who study littering, like California State University social psychologist Wesley Schultz, point out that “the distance to a trash receptacle was the strongest predictor of littering. The farther away you are from a trash can or a recycling container, the more likely you are to litter. [If] it’s too much of a hassle, if it’s too inconvenient,” he says, people are much likelier to transgress. The solution is obvious: deploy more trash containers.
Third, promote citywide cleanups. Evanston schedules clean-up campaigns every April in conjunction with Earth Day. But cleaning up our beloved planet, like our beloved City, is not a one-and-done thing. These campaigns deserve to be better known and promoted throughout the heavy-use warm-weather months.
Fourth, encourage store owners and managers to clean the sidewalks and parkways immediately outside their stores. Downtown Evanston contracts on their behalf to empty garbage cans, but sidewalks are another matter – open season for trash.
Fifth, honor the volunteers who help beautify the City’s parks. There are many neighborhood organizations who gather on a regular basis from spring through fall to weed and remove invasive plants and establish woodland preserves. The City should recognize and promote their efforts, perhaps even posting signs acknowledging and celebrating park volunteers by name and group. What a nice tribute and incentive that would be.
Sixth, rather than split trash clean-up duties between the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Public Works, Evanston should name a “Trash Czar,” responsible for coordinating and focusing all the City’s efforts toward cleaning up the streets, parks, sidewalks, and parkways. Litter doesn’t respect borders: it blows everywhere, even across department boundaries.
And lastly, consider some kind of competition among specially assembled teams, as a recent Wall Street Journal article reported is done in Pittsburgh; Rockbridge County, Virginia; Albuquerque; and elsewhere. “Ireland is pioneer in this sport,” the article noted. “Since 1958, the government has sponsored Tidy Towns competitions in which neighborhoods, towns and villages compete for prizes, awarded annually in Oscar-like ceremonies.” How cool is that?
All this may sound hopelessly naïve. Littering seems as ingrained here as an Olympics event, like shot putting, judging from our City streets. But consider other nasty and deeply entrenched habits, like smoking. One only has to watch old Hollywood movies to see how glamorous cigarettes were portrayed on screen. But thanks to the U.S. Surgeon General’s landmark 1964 report and ongoing anti-smoking campaigns, the number of Americans who smoke regularly has fallen from 43% in 1965 to 14% in 2018, according to the American Lung Association.
Or take something earthier, like dog poop. At one time people hardly bothered to clean up after their dogs, and stepping in the muck was an occupational hazard of walking outside. At best dog owners “curbed” their pooches with the expectation that heavy rains or street sweepers would carry off the offending matter. Gradually over a few decades that thinking has changed, and dog owners are now expected to (and usually do) carry plastic bags to remove their mutt’s posterior business.
Changing communal behavior is hard but not impossible. In his book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell points out that sometimes it takes very little to shift public thinking – just the initiative of a few influencers and a few strategic campaigns. Such mundane actions as fixing broken windows and cleaning graffiti in New York City subways helped contribute to a lower crime rate throughout the city’s transit system, Gladwell writes. If so, cleaning trash can have a similar positive multiplier effect in Evanston.
It just takes some imagination on the City’s part, the determined efforts of volunteers, and a creative campaign to remind individuals to find and use a trash container. The result will be a more livable Evanston that’s free of loose trash. Let’s beautify our wonderful City.