Did COVID cause more litter, illegal dumping and tall weeds in Cincinnati?

Staff and volunteer shortages lead to delays
Trash dumped on Dumont Street in Columbia-Tusculum.
Posted at 10:57 AM, Oct 28, 2021

CINCINNATI — As temperatures drop, Keep Cincinnati Beautiful’s clean-up season is ending. But executive director Jonathan Adee is urging residents to pick up litter outside of their homes, to make up for the pandemic-fueled volunteer shortages.

The number of litter and tall grass and weed complaints has risen in 2021, according to city data analyzed by WCPO through July.

Adee is gearing up for a record year of litter complaints heading into this winter, after the fall volunteer clean-up season has ended. And he fears illegal dumping complaints will rise due to the end of the eviction moratorium, which could prompt landlords to dump mattresses and renter belongings curbside.

“The data says that 2021 is going to be the most complained about from a litter standpoint since 2018, pre-covid.”

Trash dumped on Harrison Avenue in Westwood.
Trash dumped on Harrison Avenue in Westwood.

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, which gets $475,000 each year in city funding to fight neighborhood blight, relies on volunteers to clean up litter. In a normal year, large companies sponsor big events and bus several hundred employees to clean up a particular area in a neighborhood. But COVID fears put a stop to those events in 2020.

“Spring (2020) just really ground to a halt. We had a number of corporate events that were planned that had to be canceled pretty quickly. The neighborhood enhancement program was canceled … the state roadway cleanup, which cleans up the places that everybody notices on the way to work, that was canceled very quickly,” Adee said. “In addition to the fact that the residents of Cincinnati had to start getting takeout rather than sitting down in restaurants, creating more takeout containers, it was a real blip in litter within the city.”

Trash along the corner of McHenry and Harrison avenues in Westwood.
Trash along the corner of McHenry and Harrison avenues in Westwood.

In a normal year, Keep Cincinnati Beautiful utilizes 15,000 volunteers to pick up more than a million pounds of trash, divert 20,000 tires from landfills and divert 400,000 pounds of recycling materials from landfills.

But in 2020, volunteers were able to collect only about 60 percent of that. Adee estimates that 2021 will show a slight rebound, but still down substantially from a normal year.

“This year, the volunteer events have been smaller, typically five to 10 friends or family members, to allow for social distancing,’’ Adee said. “

The pandemic has also changed the types of litter that is hitting the ground.

Litter along the 2400 block of Fairmont Avenue in Cincinnati
Litter along the 2400 block of Fairmont Avenue in Cincinnati

“There is less litter that is like cigarette butts, but a great deal more litter in takeout containers. Less water and soda bottles but more beer and alcohol containers,” Adee said.

Cincinnati Public Services Director Jerry Wilkerson said there may be a slight uptick in litter complaints this year, but he credits the Fix It Cincy! mobile app for making it faster and easier for residents to file a complaint than in years past.

Since more residents are working from home during the pandemic, they also have eyes on their neighbors.

Illegal dumping of tires and a sofa on Harrison Avenue in Westwood.
Illegal dumping of tires and a sofa on Harrison Avenue in Westwood.

“'Why do I have to look at that man having a couch on his front porch,'” Wilkerson said. “They may not have noticed it (before) … if it's dark when you leave for work and it's dark when you come home, so you don’t see that couch except on the weekends. When you see it every day, it ratchets up the frustration.”

The city has18 full-time litter cleanup positions, 14 of those jobs filled at the moment, Wilkerson said.

Public services has always struggled with employee turnover, but Wilkerson said the jobs are harder to fill now.

“There was a time when especially, whether it was on trash crews or other areas, we would have 70 to 80 to 100 applications,” Wilkerson said during an Oct. 21 interview. “Today they were interviewing, we had 10 applications.”

Department of Buildings and Inspections director Art Dahlberg, who oversees the city’s private lot abatement program, said pandemic-fueled staff shortages from landscaper contractors has kept tall grass and weed complaints open longer.

“Some of those vendors have had a really hard time holding on to the same level of staffing they had prior to COVID coming in,” Dahlberg said. “In our private lot abatement we go through an enforcement process and then if the property owner has not resolved it, we use one of our vendors to go in and clean up a lot.”

Data from Cincy Insights through late July show that tall grass and litter complaints are up substantially this year from 2020, but illegal dumping complaints have stayed about the same.

City crews often spend the most time cleaning up the same areas, repeatedly. Some of the most complained about areas include Reading Road, Westwood Northern Boulevard, Gray Road, Baltimore Avenue, and Oliver Street in the West End, Wilkerson said.

“It seems like as soon as we clean up you can go back the next day and then there’s litter and trash,’’ Wilkerson said.

Adee is asking residents to pick up litter and stop throwing trash from car windows and dumping unwanted items, such as tires and mattresses, on street corners.

If you want to raise your children in a safe place, if you want to attract employees and keep employees in our great city, part of that has to do with cleaning up litter,” Adee said.

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