Opinion

For Volunteers, Cleaning Up Litter is Never-Ending Game of Whack-A-Mole

The volunteers clean up after thoughtless others. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — The corner lot at the Intersection of Smith Street and Chalkstone and Camden avenues is essentially a drive-thru dump. A short semi-circle dirt path, wide enough to accommodate a large pickup, that connects the avenues makes for easy access and quick getaways.

A group of volunteers picked up most of the unneighborly deposits Oct. 17 — they left, for example, a fairly large sofa were it had been dumped — but less than a week later, on Oct. 23, a return visit found the neglected site filled with more trash.

On this Saturday morning, the lot, across the street from a Chinese restaurant and a hair salon that looks shuttered, is vacant, except for overgrown vegetation, a trailer parked in the weeds that ironically advertises for a junk-removal business, and newly dumped debris. The dirt path is marked with fresh tire tracks.

Six days after the volunteers had left contractor trash bags filled with garbage at the curb for the city’s Department of Public Works to pick up, two mattresses, another sofa, insulation, plywood, drywall, piles of clothes, bags of trash, empty laundry detergent bottles, plastic packaging of all shapes and sizes, an empty 12-pack with four aluminum beer cans nearby, nips, and a toy truck litter the site. At least none of the 10 or so tires removed a week earlier had returned, and there was no putrid stench.

The disgusting scene left Sarah Liew and Alicia Pratt dejected, but not surprised. Many of the sites they clean fail to stay that way, as municipal officials, police departments, and absentee property owners do little to nothing to curb illegal dumping.

Sure, a Providence City Council member will gleefully share a selfie on social media of city employees trashing the meager belongings of those without a home and call it cleaning up the city. But take the humans out of the picture, and municipal officials don’t seem to care about lots trashed by people with places to live — at least that’s the lesson Liew and Pratt have learned.

“They say thank you after we clean up a site, but there is never any follow-up, no enforcement action taken, no making property owners take measures to stop the dumping,” said Liew, noting departments and officials often resort to passing the buck when questions are asked. “Nothing is done to address the problem.”

In Providence, she said, the DPW and the Parks Department are happy to pick up the trash bags her group fills and carries to the curb, but that is the extent of the city’s efforts to help. In the beginning, before they got municipal officials to pick up the trash they collected, volunteers would divvy up the bags, load them into their cars, and bring them home to throw out with their household waste.

Every Saturday or Sunday for much of the past year about a dozen volunteers have been meeting up late in the morning to spend 2 hours cleaning up other people’s messes. The group was founded by Liew in September 2020, to get people outside during the pandemic in a way that helps better their communities.

The group is named Cozy Rhody — Liew admitted she has no real idea why — and stays connected mostly on Meetup but also via social media. The group has more than 420 Meetup members, although only about 30 are regular trash collectors. Their goal is to bring awareness to the problem and change behaviors.

During the past 12-plus months, Cozy Rhode has conducted about 40 cleanups, mostly in Providence, but also in Cranston, Pawtucket, Warwick, and Lincoln. Big-box stores have donated the equipment needed — gardening gloves, buckets, and heavy-duty trash bags.

While most of the group’s volunteer trash collectors live in Providence, Liew, a Connecticut native who lives in Cranston, has invested considerable time and energy cleaning up a city she has never lived in. Most of the group’s other volunteer picker-uppers have done the same.

The Oct. 17 cleanup of the Smith Hill site was particularly revolting. Discarded takeout containers and food waste had created a stench and a nasty situation.

“It was disgusting,” said Pratt, a Texas native who lives in a West End apartment building. “I felt like I smelled for three days.”

She was forced to toss out the old sneakers she wore to the cleanup.

The corner lot, they were told by the City Council member who represents the district, is owned by a Central Falls real-estate company. Liew said the city should make the company put up a fence or barricade the two entrances/exits to this “easy-in, easy-out dumping ground.” A Cozy Rhody volunteer who lives near the Chalkstone and Camden site has seen people dump trash there.

Illegal dumping, however, isn’t restricted to Smith Hill. Cozy Rhody volunteers have cleaned up sites on the East Side, in the West End, and in South Providence. If a trashed site isn’t fenced off and no No Trespassing signs are present, the group will bag the mess. Liew said the sites are a combination of public and private property.

Community concern and working with other groups such as the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, Groundwork Rhode Island, and Keep Blackstone Valley Beautiful leads them to most of the sites in need of a cleanup.

Some of the more notorious locations in Providence that regularly get trashed are behind an Asian supermarket on Cadillac Drive — Exit 17 off Interstate 95 South — along the West River behind the Esek Hopkins Middle School on Charles Street, Merino Park in Olneyville, and off Gano Street on the East Side.

Cozy Rhody volunteers have cleaned up these sites multiple times. Liew believes some of the waste dumped along Cadillac Drive is from the supermarket, and some contractors use these areas and others as a dumping ground to avoid paying landfill tipping fees. Behind the middle school, plastic bottles and needles are the most common items picked up.

Pratt said the problem of a trashy neighborhood can be solved by better community engagement, such as cleaning out a blocked storm drain near your home, picking up trash on your street, and calling out those who litter.

“Everyone assumes it’s the city’s responsibility to clean up the mess, and not the responsibility of the community,” she said. “That responsibility belongs to all of us.”

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

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  1. This state needs to up the fines for illegal dumping. In this case the landowner who is benefiting from free labor needs to be cited. Why does the state and its leaders in the GA make no effort to beef up dumping laws?

  2. The site behind Esek Hopkins is right on a very pretty stretch of the West River. Keeping the dumpers out, with a few gates to prevent driving in would make a big difference in the community being willing to use the site. Greg Gerritt Watershed Steward Friends of the Moshassuck

  3. While it’s comforting to know this problem — so perfectly framed in this article — isn’t just an isolated problem in my Wanskuck neighborhood, it’s discouraging to those of us who care, and put in the countless hours of sweat equity to pick up trash and improve our neighborhoods, that the city really just pays lip service, doesn’t go after the property owners of these lots who don’t care, and the vast majority of city residents turn a blind eye to the problem.

  4. This is so true. I’ve participated on numerous clean-ups since 1993 when I first arrived to the Blackstone Valley first with the Friends of the Blackstone and now on occasion I assist my colleague with Keep Blackstone Valley Beautiful. Most often we end up cleaning up the same places. Thank goodness for volunteers like Cozy Rhody, Keep Blackstone Valley Beautiful, Friends of the Blackstone, Woonasquatucket Watershed Council and all the other watershed groups out there and individuals like Keith Hainley, Bonnie Combs, John Marsland, and Donna Kaehler. I find I do not have the patience nor stamina to continually be picking up after other people.

    God bless them all!

  5. The photos tell the story. I am always shocked by the amount of trash I see when I visit Providence. Why is there no enforcement of laws that are already on the books and no accountability from City and State government? Rhode Island is a small state and it really shouldn’t be that hard to make a change and prevent this type of illegal dumping A few well-placed cameras would do the trick. It appears there is no political will.

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