No more Mr. Nice Guy

“Bring in their heads, and you’ll get a reward,” joked one Asheville man who attended Mayor Leni Sitnick‘s Aug. 20 roundtable on litter.

He wasn’t alone in his frustration and disgust about litter in the city. At least 100 people showed up for Sitnick’s meeting and brainstormed on ways to nip litter problems. The diverse group included volunteers from local environmental groups like Quality Forward, teens from Project STEAM, homeowners, Chamber of Commerce folks, City Council members, elderly residents, builders, housing advocates and city staff.

City resident Miram Heck summed up the most-frequently repeated suggestion: “Litter-law enforcement should be number one.”

But no one was sure how to do it, though they did propose a few ways to pay for anti-litter campaigns and projects.

Offer a bounty on litterers, one participant suggested. Or fine them $1,000 for dropping a cigarette butt on the street. Make litterers do 300 hours of community service, said a teenager. Or publish offenders’ names and pictures in the newspaper, a middle-aged woman proposed. As for graffiti artists who repeatedly deface downtown properties: Threaten them with baseball bats.

Frustration with the problems ran high, but practical solutions proved elusive during the two-hour session.

As Sitnick noted at the outset, actually getting something done about litter requires a clear focus and definite, practical projects — and the first step might be coming up with a potent slogan.

“A few years ago, we tossed out the idea, ‘People who litter are trash.’ Maybe we could come up with something a little more positive,” Sitnick suggested.

She also reminded roundtable participants that local, state and federal funds are limited: Reducing litter will take a concerted, cooperative effort involving residents, city officials, local organizations and businesses. “Focus on finding solutions,” urged Sitnick.

With that, city staff divided the participants into four discussion groups: cleanup, prevention/education, neighborhoods and downtown. Sitnick and Council members Earl Cobb, Chuck Cloninger and Ed Hay wandered from group to group, taking notes. Over and over again, participants in all groups urged stricter enforcement of existing litter laws.

“If we hurt people in their pockets, they’ll start taking notice,” asserted Quality Forward volunteer Willie Mae Brown.

“If [the city] can fine skateboarders $80, you can fine litterers something,” added an older gentleman.

“Stiff fines could help fund [litter projects],” suggested Asheville homeowner Chris Wardwel. He also proposed that the city sell anti-litter bumper stickers or license tags, and use the revenue for educational efforts.

But before police can cite litterers, the officers have to catch them in the act, said facilitator Alan Hyder, who is administrative services manager with the Asheville Police Department.

And punishments aside, as one woman pointed out, another key question is, “What do you do about the attitude of ‘I don’t care?'”

The main answer participants came up with was education: Create an Asheville anti-litter slogan and spread the word; send city staff and volunteers to local schools to teach kids about litter; remind shop owners that they’re responsible for cleaning the sidewalks in front of their stores; post signs notifying litterers about whatever stiffer penalties are passed.

For some, though, the answers were as simple — and as challenging — as what Jean McLeod does every day: Armed with gloves and trash bags, the elderly downtown resident simply goes out and picks up litter.

“I see you everywhere,” Lexington Avenue property owner John Lantzius told McLeod. Lantzius divides his time between Vancouver, Canada, and Asheville. And when he discovered that a cart-pushing homeless man was regularly leaving litter on the sidewalk alongside one of his downtown Asheville properties, Lantzius asked around, called city staff — and found out that he, the property owner, is reponsible for sweeping the sidewalk. “So I’ve been cleaning it up. That’s what everyone should do,” he said.

Lantzius also suggested that the city hose down the downtown sidewalks every night or morning, washing litter into the streets and curbs, where one of the city’s three street-sweeper vehicles could collect it

Other residents asked for more frequent garbage pickups and more public trash cans. To that, Asheville Public Works Director Mark Combs responded, “I can give you all the service you want — if you’re willing to pay for it.”

No one took him up on the offer.

Bob Tinkler, who works with the Adopt-a-Street program co-sponsored by the city and Quality Forward, raised a different kind of question: Could program participants pick up litter on grass-covered state rights-of-way before those areas are mowed — and the litter gets chopped up and spread by the wind.

The solution, city staff responded: Urge volunteers to call the North Carolina Department of Transportation and get their mowing schedule.

A far more difficult issue is the increased influx of homeless people into the city, noted building contractor Allen Roderick. In the 14 years he has been renovating old buildings in the city’s central business district, Roderick complained, “I’ve seen a lot of what [homeless people] leave behind — including [human] feces.”

“Why not put them to work cleaning up?” city resident Peggy Tinkler tossed out. The city has used prison labor for such cleanup tasks as removing illegal posters and fliers from downtown street lamps.

The put-the-homeless-to-work idea brought the audience back to the need to educate people about litter. One woman suggested sending volunteers or city staff to the homeless shelters, to inform people about the city’s litter laws — and maybe encourage a little community pride. She also proposed using the media to get the word out, through ads and public notices.

To all this, McLeod — who is usually shy about speaking out — made a quiet rebuttal: “Those people don’t read the newspaper.” She also mentioned one of the dirtiest downtown places she has found in her hands-on work: the empty lot next to the Texaco station at Merrimon Avenue and Interstate 240, and the near-hidden area behind it and the adjacent building on Broadway. Both are frequented by street people, she said — and situated perfectly to catch litter blown from I-240 and Merrimon.

The homeless don’t deserve all the blame for litter, either, David Herbert pointed out, saying, “We don’t do enough litter prevention going back to the source.” In his neighborhood, noted Herbert, that source is fast-food containers. He suggested asking restaurants to install driver’s-side trash cans at their lots; giving customers the option of getting their wrapped burgers without a bag; and raising litter fines to $1,000. “We simply are not being serious enough in enforcement,” asserted Herbert.

“I’m blown away by the …. common sense coming out of this group,” Sitnick remarked at the meeting’s end. Scanning the multitude of big flip-chart pages where staff had listed everyone’s suggestions, Sitnick explained that city staff would compile everyone’s ideas, recommend specific tasks for achieving them, and then send copies to each roundtable participant.

But after that, she stressed, the impetus must come from them — whether it’s setting up a slogan-making contest or planning a cleanup project. “We’re all in this together,” declared Sitnick. “Your job from here on out,” she told everyone, “is to network with friends, neighbors, co-workers, organizations, companies. Spread the word. Do your part.”

For information about city litter programs, call Karen Rankin at 259-5498, ext. 3300. To learn about Adopt-A-Street and other Quality Forward projects, call 254-1776. To find out about DOT’s fall litter sweep, call (800)331-5864.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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