Hell’s Kitchen Litter Legion founder Catie Savage scouts the New York City streets of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood for trash explosions, pushing a cart with a cardboard sign reading “TRASH QUEEN OF HELL’S KITCHEN.”
With a group of volunteers armed with brooms, trash pickers and garbage bags, Savage inspects the corner litter baskets and digs into the garbage, separating out the bottles to be recycled, tossing them into a wagon, emptying out the remaining trash from the baskets and placing the bagged up trash to be picked up by the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) later.
“In early June, it was just a mess,” she said. “The amount of trash on the street was ridiculous. And then you also had the budget cuts to the Department of Sanitation. So everything just kind of hit a tipping point. And I just got tired of seeing the trash on my street.”
Due to the pandemic, DSNY’s budget was slashed by $106 million dollars and outdoor litter basket collection service was down by 67%.
“We noticed the neighborhood just being totally littered on and we don’t like to live here like this,” said volunteer Kendra Stensven, 44, who’s been volunteering with the group since October with her husband and their sons Emmett, 12, and Carl, 7. “It’s our way of trying to help bridge the gap until we can get back to normal city living. I think we all have a duty to help each other out in times of need.”
Savage, 35, was initially cleaning up the neighborhood by herself, but then started posting on social media for volunteers.
“It started slow, there were maybe like three or four people a week, but then it started to gain momentum and I started getting donations from community members to help pay for all the supplies to go through a lot of bags and gloves,” she said. “So now we have about 120 people on our email list, we get maybe like 18 to 20 people per cleanup.”
On March 30, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced new initiatives to make the city cleaner.
The initiatives included a 61% increase to litter basket collection service and an increase in litter basket service by more than 100 trucks per week.
“We definitely started seeing the impact of that,” Savage said. “Earlier in March during our cleanups along 10th Avenue, we’d pick up like 300 pounds of loose litter. Last weekend, we only picked up 125 pounds.”
DSNY Commissioner Edward Grayson said that although his department’s budget wasn’t “fully restored,” they were “mostly restored.”
“We’ve been through a lot together as a city for the year, I think that you’ve seen changes in the waste stream and changes in the way that people behave,” Grayson said. “Let’s all do our part to stay clean. Let’s recover, let’s be healthy, let’s all move forward together and have the cleanest and safest city of all.”
“If everybody just did their part and we had a little more social responsibility, we could have a clean city,” she said.
(Production: Roselle Chen, Hussein al Waaile)