Community Cleanup crew exposes pervasive problem on campus: buttheads

Park Blocks flush with trees, a waterfront view, the bustle and ring of the streetcar, and what else? Countless cigarette butts.

Community members at Portland State are working to reclaim the downtown from the refuse. Every first and third Thursday for most of this year, the Academic and Student Recreation Center has organized Community Cleanup Walks to make a dent in the city’s litter problem. Much of that, according to coordinators, involves cleaning up after smokers.

“Cigarette butts are the overwhelming majority, and probably do the most damage,” said Community Cleanup Walk coordinator Dina VanderWaal.

Around 65 percent of all cigarette butts are littered in the U.S., according to the organization Keep America Beautiful. According to a 2009 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health report, cigarette butts are not biodegradable—they do not decompose naturally and therefore spend time leaching chemicals into the run-off water and soil while littering the environment as refuse.

The cleanup crew has picked up more than spent cigarettes: Organizers noted that finds also included food waste and a syringe during previous cleanups.

“We’ve found entire cheeseburgers,” Merz said.

This is the cleanup walk’s first year, and they have collected 78 pounds of trash, according to Erin Merz, the marketing and outreach coordinator for the ASRC. While the event has not received large numbers of participants, partnering with sports teams and other campus departments has helped raise awareness.

“[Participation has been] pretty low,” VanderWaal said. “It was hard to get people motivated to want to do the walks.”

Merz offered a different take on total participation thus far.

“I think of it as a grassroots effort,” Merz said. “In terms of total participants, we’ve had around 75. But that includes some repeats as well, which I would claim as a success for a new program.”

The cleanup coordinators have partnered with Student Health and Counseling, women’s basketball and the TRiO student support program this year. The Sustainability Leadership Center also partnered with the cleanup walk in April to educate workers about the campus gardens.

“Partnerships are pretty key for our success,” Merz said.

The walks are hosted through Campus Rec for a Cause, an initiative that aims to pair Campus Rec with community service.

“There’s a physical component as well as a service component to the activities we provide in Campus Rec for a Cause,” Merz said.

Numbers have been better this term, and VanderWaal explained that many people feel if they don’t litter, they’re not contributing to the problem.

“We’re in the middle of the city, it sounds cliche, but we are in Portland and we’re big on sustainability,” VanderWaal said.

PSU Facilities and Property Management on campus provides participants with all trash-picking materials. Because facilities regularly addresses litter on main campus areas, the walks have often been located just off campus.

“This is very timely with the smoke and tobacco free campus which happened in the fall,” said Merz, who noted that Southwest Broadway and near Fourth Avenue are hotspots for trash. “People don’t understand where the campus starts and stops.”

This year, the walks are held from noon to 12:50 p.m., and no registration is required. Next year, there is talk of changing the time, according to Merz. The ASRC will host the final Community Cleanup Walk of the year this Thursday, May 19.

Correction: Previously, the article noted that “the walks have yet to form partnerships with the Sustainability Leadership Center or other academic departments.” The SLC worked with the cleanup walk to teach workers about campus gardens. The article was corrected to reflect that partnership.