Litter on an Upper Lawrenceville hillside. Photo by Ryan Rydzewski.

Welcome to the enchanted city of Pittsburgh, where grocery bags grow on trees and wild water bottles sprout from the hills. Springtime has wrought yet another spectacular bloom: the flaming reds of torn-open Cheetos bags, the metallic radiance of leftover beer cans, the yellow effervescence of whatever’s in those water bottles.

We are blessed with abundance here, thanks to garbage blown from lidless receptacles, food wrappers thoughtfully tossed from cars and to those generous souls who, by cover of night, share their soiled mattresses and busted TVs with the rest of us.

It’s that time of year again. From the Hilltop to Lawrenceville, Glen Hazel to Duck Hollow, litter season is once again in full force — a fact that becomes immediately, painfully obvious as soon as the snow melts.

All this rogue garbage, activists say, is more than just unsightly. There’s growing evidence that it affects our quality of life: Litter fouls our waterways, drives away investment and erodes the city’s spirit.

“The biggest issue is the sense of neglect it conveys,” says Myrna Newman, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Allegheny CleanWays. “That has real economic effects — businesses don’t move in and property values go down. But on a much more personal level, it alters people’s psyche. It has a deeply depressing psychological effect. Think about what that does to a community over time — to people’s sense of being able to do something about the problems around them.”

That’s why with gloves, bags, and even a boat, anti-litter advocates are fighting back. They’re aiming to prove that Pittsburgh doesn’t have to be covered in trash — and that hopefully, by cleaning up our act, we can start solving the bigger, more serious issues that threaten the city’s future.

What’s with all this litter?

On a rainy morning in Duck Hollow — a tiny neighborhood along the Monongahela River — Captain Evan Clark idles aboard the 28-foot Rachel Carson. A self-described “river rat,” Clark has seen his share of waterborne detritus: downed weather balloons, a live caiman, two dead bodies, and once — while leading a cleanup with a Mennonite church group — a bag of discarded sex toys. (“Welcome to the big city, children!” he says, shaking his head at the memory.)

Just off the Carson‘s bow, about 30 volunteers comb the shore for garbage. They’re here as part of the Tireless Project — a series of riverfront cleanups organized by Allegheny CleanWays. Every few seconds, they pull more debris from the muck: computer monitors, shards of broken glass, a string of old Christmas lights. They put it all on the pontoon, where Clark can take it to a collection point.

Captain Evan Clark of Allegheny CleanWays points out dump sites along the Monongahela River. Photo by Ryan Rydzewski.

That so much waste would be found down here comes as no surprise to the CleanWays staff, who see in Duck Hollow a confluence of factors that have led to Pittsburgh’s litter problem. Tough topography and steep hillsides, they say, make great places to dump garbage (and not-so-great places to clean).

Outdated infrastructure makes the problem worse: Not far from the Carson, a combined sewer overflow spits trash from the streets directly into the Mon. And then there’s the lingering perception among some Pittsburghers that certain neighborhoods — particularly if they’re low-income, out-of-the-way, or both — simply don’t matter.

“If people don’t know how to dispose of something, or if there’s a cost to it, sometimes they’ll take it to a neighborhood they think nobody cares about,” says Newman, explaining that much of the litter in places like Duck Hollow is left there by non-residents. “They’ll think, ‘This place is neglected anyway. Who’s going to care if I dump my garbage here?’”

As a result, Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods often bear the brunt of the city’s litter problem. Worse, the problem tends to compound itself: Study after study has found that one of the biggest predictors of litter is more litter. The same thing is true on the rivers, says Clark — the more garbage people see, the more likely they are to litter themselves.

“Traditionally, there’s been this attitude in Pittsburgh where we look at the rivers as industrial sewers,” he explains. “People think they’re dead and ruined already, so a little more garbage isn’t going to hurt.”

What are Pittsburghers doing about it?

Of course, a little more litter does hurt.

“It’s a public health issue,” says Alicia Carberry, an operations assistant in the Office of the Mayor. “From water and soil contamination to feelings of hopelessness, to the increase in blood pressure that comes from seeing blight and trash everywhere, it affects how people view their neighborhoods and view themselves.”

That’s one reason Carberry co-organizes the annual Garbage Olympics — one of several dozen community cleanups scheduled throughout the summer and fall. Equipped with bags, gloves, and other tools provided by city, the Garbage Olympics pits neighborhood teams against each other for prizes, including an “Oscar” (of the Grouch variety) for the team that collects the most trash. Last year, some 200 volunteers collected 640 bags of trash in 20 neighborhoods all in just two hours.

Carberry expects an even bigger turnout for this year’s event, set for Sept. 21. “In an era where so many people feel anxious about the state of the world, it’s good for mental health to be able to do something,” she says. “Even if that something is picking up trash.”

In addition to organizing the cleanup, Carberry also co-chairs the Clean Pittsburgh Commission: a council of community members, nonprofits, and city officials concerned about litter. (“My whole life is garbage,” she jokes.) Launched in 2005 to streamline Pittsburgh’s beautification projects, the Commission brings its collective resources to bear in different “focus neighborhoods” each year.

This year, it’s partnering with community groups in Homewood on a slew of resident-requested projects, including establishing hard-to-recycle collection centers, installing cameras near known dump sites, and painting doors and windows on boarded-up buildings to reduce the effects of blight.

“[The Commission] got a huge response to our surveys there,” says Carberry. “Every single thing we could help with, people wanted.”

It’s an indication, she says, of just how massive the problem is — and of the growing demand for action among affected Pittsburghers.

What needs to change?

In the short term, community efforts are clearly paying off. Aboard the Rachel Carson, Clark notes that bald eagles are now nesting along the Mon — an indication of improved river health. And despite the mountain of garbage being pulled from Duck Hollow, Newman explains that just a few years ago, Allegheny CleanWays hauled 150 tons of trash from the same spot.

“Think about how much litter you see down there,” she says. “That’s an improvement.”

A sampling of what volunteers collected during an April 28 cleanup near Duck Hollow. Photo by Ryan Rydzewski.

At the same time, many worry that cleanups like this one are a band-aid at best and Sisyphean at worst.

“I love these events. I think they’re absolutely necessary,” says Hannah Samuels, Allegheny CleanWays’ volunteer and outreach coordinator. “But we need to do more to stop [litter] from happening in the first place. What could we do with the resources we’re using on such an easily preventable problem?”

Stopping litter before it starts, activists say, requires both people and systems to change. Drivers, for example, could start by not throwing those empty Wendy’s bags from their cars. People can also help by securing their garbage when they put it to the curb; by calling 311 when they’re not sure how to dispose of something; and by pushing back against what Dr. Erik Garrett, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Duquesne University, calls “movie theater syndrome.”

“We leave trash on the floor of theaters because we feel anonymous,” he says. “It’s not our house. There aren’t any consequences. We think, ‘No one’s seeing me be a pig. Besides, it’s someone’s job to clean this up.’”

We think about litter in much the same way, says Garrett — except that when it comes to cleaning up garbage, it’s often nobody’s job but our own.

City officials, meanwhile, are testing new approaches to the problem. T. Marcelle Newman, assistant director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, says her office is hiring an anti-litter specialist — someone who’ll coordinate efforts among volunteers, neighborhood groups, and nonprofits, in addition to speaking to schoolchildren and raising community awareness. “We need to do a better job of changing hearts and minds,” she says. “We’ve been responding to litter for a long time, but we’re also working to become more proactive.”

To that end, the city will soon deploy “smart” garbage cans citywide: public receptacles that alert the department when the cans are almost full. It’s also establishing a collection center and pickup programs for electronic waste, such as TVs and computer monitors. As for larger systemic changes like providing trash cans for city residents and updating outmoded recycling infrastructure, Newman says the city is searching for solutions amid high costs and ongoing turmoil in the recycling industry.

What else can I do?

As activists, nonprofits and city officials work to stem the tide of trash, nearly all of them agree: The best way to eliminate litter is to reduce consumption.

“We need a whole culture change,” says Carberry. “We need to understand that there’s really no such thing as ‘throwing something away.’ If you throw it on the ground, it’s going to end up in a river. If you put it in the trash, it still ends up in a landfill.”

Clark goes even further: “Picking up trash and cleaning the rivers is crucial. But what’s even more important is consuming less single-use plastic and becoming more active against its production,” he says. “That’s going to be Pittsburgh’s unique problem: What was once the Steel City is now becoming a huge plastics-manufacturing region.”

In other words, Pittsburgh has bigger problems than litter, both environmental and otherwise. Our air pollution isn’t just bad — it’s deadly. Raw sewage still flows through our rivers when it rains. And we’re about to make a lot more plastic.

These problems are certainly more harmful than loose garbage. But if advocates are right — if litter corrodes our self-efficacy and takes a toll on Pittsburgh’s spirit — then it’s worth paying attention to right now. Because if we can’t stop trashing our own backyard, what hope do we have of improving anything else?

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Ryan Rydzewski

Ryan Rydzewski is a freelance writer who lives and writes in Lawrenceville, where he reads on his porch and holds up traffic on his bike. Follow him on Twitter @RyanRydzewski