It’s no secret that “Tacoma is littered,” said Liz Whitefield.
Whitefield, a 14-year resident of Tacoma and co-chair of Tacoma’s West End Neighborhood Council, said she’s never seen the amount of litter in the city this bad.
“I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep their community clean,” Whitefield said. “We really just need to be stewards of where we live.”
On Saturday morning, in the forecasted 70-degree sunshine, more than 400 people are planning to do just that.
April 17 is the city-wide trash pick-up day event, organized by grassroots group Litter Free 253 and supported by the city of Tacoma and its neighborhood councils.
Anyone who wants to pick up litter in Tacoma is welcome to show up at one of 27 locations across the city to help clean up parks, sidewalks and streets. The first 10 people at each location will get a litter grabber and all volunteers will receive a tote bag for participating.
COVID-19 safety guidelines, including masks and social distancing, are required at the locations.
Cheri Solien, co-chair of the West End Neighborhood and leader behind Litter Free 253, spent months organizing events with other neighborhood council members. She’s known as a “Litter Warrior” in Tacoma.
“I’m passionate about living in a clean environment,” Solien told The News Tribune.
This year’s event will be the second city-wide clean up after one in 2019, which had a weak turnout, Solien said. This year, Litter Free 253 secured a $8,000 private grant to put on the event. The city of Tacoma also donated 1,200 trash bags and dumpsters at each of the 27 sites.
So far, more than 400 people have registered, but organizers expect more will show up the morning of the event.
“It builds a healthy community,” Whitefield said. “People have pride in where they live.”
In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in trash and waste not just in Tacoma, but in cities across the country. Many grocery stores returned to using single-use plastic bags, disposable masks became required in most public places, and restaurants beefed up their use of takeout containers.
In Tacoma, the city temporarily suspended enforcement of its Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) Ordinance to meet increasing demand for groceries and other supplies and to protect the health of grocery workers and shoppers. The city also delayed implementation of a project that aims to reduce trash downtown due to budget constraints from COVID-19.
The pandemic also shut down Adopt-a-Highway and Ecology Youth crews, two state programs that tackle litter along state highways.
As more people stayed home, the greater the amount of trash and waste they created. Litter throughout the city can come from residential trash bins overflowing, Whitefield said.
As one February study from the European School of Sustainability Science and Research put it, “lockdowns triggered by the pandemic led to an increase in levels of consumption in households, and to changes in the amounts of waste and recycling. These items have, in turn, put an additional pressure on the waste management systems of many cities around the world.”
Putting on a city-wide event takes a lot of time and effort, said Whitefield and Solien. They hope the city can take over managing an annual city clean-up event in the future.
Solien said she’d also like to see a broad anti-litter campaign.
Tacoma City Council member John Hines has supported the event along the way and plans to be one of the residents out helping clean on Saturday.
“It’s great to have such wonderful volunteers stepping up to take this on,” Hines said.
At the same time, Hines said, he’s interested in looking for ways Tacoma can do more to aid in cleaning up the city. Hines said he’s been talking with colleagues to see if any of its $63 million federal American Rescue Plan dollars can be put toward the issue. As an example, the city of Seattle invested $3 million in December towards cleaning up trash and litter.
“I do think there’s an opportunity for some of the dollars coming from the federal government to do a post-COVID clean-up,” he said.
The city recently launched pilot programs to tackle trash in Tacoma, including a $87,335 contract with PNW Bio to dispose of hazardous waste, like needles, and a $66,930 contract with Fairlane Hauling Company to remove litter and debris in city rights of way. A new Hire Program that started this month pays people experiencing homelessness to spruce up the city, including picking up trash.
People interested in joining Saturday’s event can register for one of the clean-up sites online or just show up day-of.
ABOUT THE EVENT
What: Litter Free 253 City-wide Clean Up
When: 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday, April 17
Where: Across the city of Tacoma. For a full list of the 27 clean up sites, visit the Litter Free 253 fact sheet.
This story was published by The News Tribune.