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Cleanup efforts: Columbus litter problem resurfaces

March 18, 2009
By Gary Seaman Jr.

You see it every day: Trash strewn along the interstates, plastic bags floating across major thoroughfares and cigarette butts lining freeway onramps.

Just another spring in central Ohio, one Columbus official says.

Workers and volunteers alike will hit the streets in the next several weeks to remove debris from public roadways, parks and other areas, said Mary Carran Webster, assistant director of public service.

Once covered by snow, the litter is now conspicuous. And crews don't pick it up in the winter, so spring sparks several cleanup efforts across Columbus, Webster said.

"You're not seeing any more than any other year," she said. "It's just that this is the time of year you see it."

March 28 marks the annual city employee cleanup, this year dubbed "Kick Butt Columbus." Workers and volunteers will gather at Dodge Park on Sullivant Avenue before heading to more than 30 interchanges to pick up cigarette butts.

The Columbus Young Professionals Club will join city employees in the cleanup campaign. The group's president and founder, Derek Grosso, said the organization tries to participate in two large-scale public service projects a year.

"I think that for people who do want to get involved in the community, this is a great way to start," he said. "It's going to be something that we'll get in there and roll up our sleeves."

Tossing cigarette butts out the window is actually a crime, which could result in a $500 fine, Webster said. The trouble is, police have to catch the perpetrator in the act.

In the next couple of weeks, the city's "snow warriors" will become "litter warriors," devoting two days in the spring to picking up trash in the rights of way, particularly where the city mows the grass. Budget cuts will not affect those efforts, because the workers are not paid through the general fund budget, Webster said.

Trash is not only unsightly, it's unhealthy, too, Webster said. For example, a half-eaten burger lying on the side of the road can attract rodents, she said.

"One of the most common types of litter, when the state did a litter assessment, was bottles with urine," she said, referring to jugs of waste tossed out of windows by truckers.

The good news is Columbus has a very active base of volunteers. Thousands of people work with Keep Columbus Beautiful, the city's organization that coordinates volunteer efforts and provides material for cleanup, such as gloves, trash bags and rakes.

Sherri Palmer, program manager for Keep Columbus Beautiful, said that in 2008, nearly 7,000 volunteers contributed 19,308 hours, resulting in the collection of 302,904 pounds of litter.

That, in turn, saved the city $376,707, Palmer said.

"I think the economy today reflects the need for everyone to step up and take social responsibility for cleaning their neighborhood and the city," Palmer said. "We have been fortunate to have volunteers doing that for 25 years."

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