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Environment & Science

'It's a year-round, constant effort': These are the Lehigh Valley’s litter vigilantes

Abby and Lacey, two Muhlenberg College students majoring in Environmental Science and Sustainability, respectively, joined LVCleanUp in early April to pick up trash in Allentown.

HANOVER TWP., LEHIGH COUNTY, Pa. — About two years ago, Monica Beaky posted a simple statement online — "this trash is ridiculous" — and asked for help.

She didn’t get many responses. So, she tried again.

“I did it again this year thinking hopefully, maybe I'll get something,” Beaky said. “And this year, the response was just overwhelming, frankly. I think the initial Next Door post had like 100 plus responses to it. Everybody wants to be involved.

“And so I figured, ‘OK — I'm running with this now.’”

Beaky started Trash Raiders Lehigh Valley, a volunteer group that works to pick up litter and garbage across the region. But Beaky's is not the only group of Valley residents to take trash matters into their own hands. Residents across Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton and beyond have created and volunteered with a handful of groups all working towards the same goal — to beautify the region by excising litter from the landscape.

And there’s plenty of work to do.

There are more than 500 million pieces of litter on Pennsylvania's roads, according to the state’s latest litter research study, published in January 2020. Cigarette butts and plastic make up the bulk of the trash, 37% and 30%, respectively. The report found that motorists and pedestrians are the leading litter contributors.

Beaky soon found an ally in her work — Kathy Frederick, founder of LV Clean Up.

Frederick has been litter-picking for two years, she said, posting photos online before and after to show the impact.

“It's so satisfying,” Frederick said. “There's really no greater, more immediately satisfying work than seeing a junked up area, and then an hour or two later it looks 100% trash free and you know you were responsible for that. It’s really, really gratifying.”

‘You want to clean where it's trashiest’

The sight of litter spurred Anthony Marraccini to start Easton’s Broom Brigade five years ago, after opening Connexions Gallery at 213 Northampton St.

“The amount of litter that would occur back then was overwhelming,” Marraccini said. “And you're just like, ‘Well, if I don't do this, how am I supposed to invite my customers down here?’ They'll just see it and be like, ‘Well, this place is kind of overlooked or not taken care of.' So that was a specific business motivation, but it was also community-based.”

Twice a month when weather permits, Marraccini and his volunteers spend hours collecting refuse from the city’s streets.

“The biggest impact, lowest effort thing you could do is pick up garbage in the neighborhood, and it sends a signal to people that at least somebody cares,” he said. “And you can create a sense of community around that notion to some degree.

“I'm not saying it's a cure all by any means. But you can make a sort of quiet statement to people.”

The biggest impact, lowest effort thing you could do is pick up garbage in the neighborhood, and it sends a signal to people that at least somebody cares
Anthony Marraccini, founder of Easton’s Broom Brigade

It was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that Kyra Kunsman started LV Trash Pact while on furlough from her job.

“I was just getting cabin fever and kind of trying to find something to keep myself occupied,” said Kunsman, of Upper Macungie. “I've always hated trash, as long as I can remember, and I love parks. So I kind of just one day put two and two together and was like, ‘I'm just gonna go out and start cleaning parks.’”

Soon, it turned into a group effort. Since she started three years ago, more than 100 volunteers have worked alongside her or on their own, cleaning a total of 110 parks across the region.

Kunsman had a son in October, which she said only furthered her resolve to remove litter from local spaces.

“If I bring him to a park and he gets a little older and it's just filled with trash, that's horrible to me,” she said. “I would feel bad for him and I would feel bad for other kids playing in trash when that shouldn’t be the case.

“So, it's kind of just doing it for the community and the kids, because they shouldn't have to be playing where there's trash where the swings are.”

From parks to city streets, residents in these groups work long hours. It can be a grueling job, picking up and compiling pounds of garbage. It can be dangerous, too, especially in high-traffic areas.

“The funny thing is the trash is where the traffic is,” Frederick said. “It's a catch-22. You want to clean where it's trashiest, but it's trashiest because there's fast traffic and somebody's flicking garbage out a window at high speed.

“So how do you get there unless you're PennDOT?”

Statewide litter mitigation

Parallel to the state’s study, Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, a volunteer-based organization that works on mitigating litter, released a report documenting nine commonwealth cities and the cost of illegal dumping and litter.

The only Lehigh Valley city to participate was Allentown, and the results were staggering.

The city spends $4.5 million each year on litter prevention, education and outreach, abatement and enforcement, according to “The Cost of Litter & Illegal Dumping in Pennsylvania.” The bulk of the money, about $2.5 million, is spent on abatement.

Of the nine cities featured in the report, Allentown ranks only behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in total costs.

American culture has a litter problem, said Shannon Reiter, president of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, and the current focus on abatement needs to shift to education.

“If all we're doing is spending our money on cleaning up, we're never gonna get to the root of the problem, which is the infrastructure, the behaviors that are driving the litter and the illegal dumping,” she said. “We have to continue to keep cleaning up, right? Because you have to, but we have to invest in infrastructure and we have to invest in education.”

That was the paramount finding of the report, she explained, the bottom line.

“We can talk about bottles and cans and cigarette butts and 502 million pieces of trash,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it's about money, and of the millions and millions of dollars we're spending, 80% of it's just going to clean ups, which means we're just throwing it out the door.”

Infrastructure considerations include how waste and recyclables are collected in a community, and if bins have lids, she explained. Education is also key, especially for young children.

“If we want to change the culture, we have to do all of those things,” Reiter said. “If given the opportunity to dispose of a product properly and conveniently, if it's convenient, people are going to do the right thing,”

After publishing the litter research study, the state Department of Transportation and Department of Environment Protection in 2021 released “Pennsylvania’s Litter Action Plan.” The stated goal in the report is to reduce the amount of litter in the state by 30% within five years through targeted efforts in education and outreach, infrastructure, litter laws and enforcement and partnerships.

Natasha Fackler, infrastructure implementation coordinator with PennDOT and a collaborator on the Litter Action Plan, said the state is working on a method to track and measure the plan’s effectiveness.

“While it has not been implemented yet, we have had discussions on doing this visible litter survey and approach for making sure that we are making positive impacts in this space and having a way to measure and track that,” Fackler said. “So it's something that we strive to reach and, while it is a lofty goal, we want people in Pennsylvania to take pride in the communities that we live in and the space that we all like to spend time in and have a clean and green space for people to do that.”

Officials have so far focused on education, launching a campaign called PA Fights Dirty.

“I think of all the prongs [this] is one of the ones that I feel like we've actually made really good strides in,” Fackler said. “The team is working on seeing where we want to go next, potentially launching additional campaigns within this umbrella.”

‘It's a year-round, constant effort’

Unlike the state agencies and municipalities, the litter vigilantes of the Valley don’t function with a budget. Many either dig into their own pockets or connect with agencies like Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful before each clean-up to secure necessary supplies: gloves, grabbers, safety vests and trash bags.

Kunsman always offers volunteers the supplies they need, she said. The cost incurred from picking up litter is often something residents don’t consider.

“I make no money out of this,” she said. “I think that's another thing people don't realize. This is just like a huge hobby thing that I do and I put my heart and soul into it and just ask for people to help out in return.”

Similarly, another misconception is the idea that spring clean-ups, often scheduled around Earth Day, are enough.

“I definitely think the focus on Earth Day gives people a false sense that they've done what needs to be done — when in reality, it's a year-round, constant effort if we want to make things noticeably better for the community,” Beaky said. “One day, even with large groups, is a drop in the bucket.”