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Burlington’s city staff takes to the streets to fight litter

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Members of Burlington’s city staff are preparing to roll up their sleeves to show the community that the proliferation of litter is more than just a throw-away issue.

On Friday, April 26, many of the city’s municipal employees will take part in a litter cleanup called “Burlington Beats Litter” that’s scheduled to coincide with a series of similar events that the N.C. Department of Transportation has in the works.

Yet, even as the city’s rank and file prep for this cleanup, the city’s administrators are exploring other, more comprehensive proposals to address Burlington’s problems with discarded trash.

Amy Barber, the city’s stormwater manager, offered a glimpse into some of these higher-level initiatives when she briefed the city’s leaders about Burlington’s anti-litter activities during a city council work session on Monday.

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Barber stressed that the staff’s own sweat equity has been crucial to many of these existing endeavors.

“We want to set a profound example,” she explained to the council that evening. “The way we’re trying to approach this is to let the community see that we as employees care about the community and that we want to clean it up.”

Barber said that the city has organized next month’s staff-level cleanup in order to set a better example for the general public to emulate. In the meantime, she said that the city also hosts regular trash pickups along local waterways; it offers litter collection kits to residents who want to conduct their own cleanups; and it sponsors initiatives like the rec department’s adopt-a-parks program to encourage private sector involvement.

The council also heard about some of the city’s more hands-on litter collection activities from Burlington’s public works director Gary Smith. Smith noted, that his department currently has one staff member tasked with addressing litter and other nuisances in Burlington’s downtown business district and is preparing to add a second employee to this detail as well. Meanwhile, he said that work crews are regularly sent out from his department’s solid waste division in order to deal with litter along city streets and in the road right-of-way on a case-by-case basis.

Smith acknowledged that these work crews are being mobilized more and more often as garbage continues to proliferate across Burlington’s municipal limits. He also alluded to intrusions from other areas, like Guilford County, where garbage along the interstate has steadily crept in an eastward direction.

In order to deal with this interjurisdiction spread, Smith said that the city has scheduled a meeting with the NC DOT as well as county-level representatives.

“It’s not just an issue here in the city,” he went on to inform the council, “it’s in the county as well.”

Barber acknowledged that, unlike the public works department, her own stormwater management unit lacks the personnel needed to make regular passes along area rivers and creeks. She nevertheless noted that the city plans to install a litter trap along the Little Alamance Creek in order to catch some of the garbage that makes its way into Burlington’s City Park. At the same time, her own division hopes to partner with the recreation department to launch an adopt-a-stream program similar to the existing option for parks.

As part of her presentation to the council, Barber mentioned some forthcoming outreach initiatives, including an overhaul of the litter section on Burlington’s municipal website and the increased promotion of a program called “Fix It Burlington!” that allows residents to register complaints and suggestions with the appropriate city departments.

Barber also told the council that she and her colleagues are prepared to kick their anti-litter efforts up a notch should the council want them to do so.

“We did create an outline of a comprehensive litter management plan,” she explained, “a plan that hopefully doesn’t just sit on somebody’s desk but gives us a way to approach a sustainable, long-term solution.”

Barber went on to ask the council for some guidance on how far she and her colleagues should go in developing this comprehensive plan. Her request was later reiterated by Burlington’s city manager Craig Honeycutt, who repeatedly tried to elicit these clear marching orders from the city’s elected officials.

“We don’t want you to be shocked,” the city manager declared, “if you see a concerted effort and some money [in the city’s proposed budget] to develop a plan.”

The council, for its part, gave the city’s administrators little in the way of explicit instruction, although its members were unambiguous in their overall support for the staff’s ongoing battle with littler.

“I think the council is pretty committed that this is a problem,” Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler said as he captured the prevailing mood of the group. “The alternative is, we’re going to lose our city.”

Butler went on to observe that active construction sites are responsible for much of the litter that mars Burlington’s roadways. He also cast some additional blame on privately-owned dump trucks that spew torrents of garbage or construction debris on their way through Burlington’s municipal limits. Butler homed in on a particularly egregious trail of refuse that he said was left behind when one of these trucks spilled its guts along Flora Avenue.

“They’re just not being good stewards,” he added, “and nothing would tickle me more than to see a blue light behind a truck that just dumped 200 pounds of trash on the side of the road.”

The mayor ultimately encouraged the city’s municipal staff to keep their eyes peeled for these deposits of garbage as they go about their regular rounds in different parts of the city.

In the meantime, councilmember Dejuana Bigelow saw little room to improve the staff’s current efforts, which she judged to be “fantastic” just as they are.

In much the same vein, councilman Ronnie Wall argued that much of the onus should be on the public to report the various eyesores that they spot in their neighborhoods. Yet, on a seemingly contradictory note, Wall also echoed Butler’s general sense of alarm about the apparent explosion of litter in Burlington.

“I would say I agree with the mayor 100 percent,” he insisted, “if we don’t move forward, we’ll lose our city.”

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