The mission of Allegheny CleanWays is straightforward: to engage and empower people to clean up litter and illegal dumping in Allegheny County on land, waterways, riverbanks and stream banks. Powered by a small staff and a cadre of dedicated volunteers, the nonprofit is making a positive impact on our local environment. We spoke with Allegheny CleanWays’ executive director, Myrnaa Newman, about the organization and its work to beautify the region.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): When and why was Allegheny CleanWays established?
Myrna Newman (Newman): We were a chapter of Pennsylvania CleanWays, a grassroots group that started in Westmoreland County. A woman riding her horse in the area found a big dumpsite over a hillside, so she organized a bunch of friends to clean it up. In doing so, she faced a number of hurdles and realized how difficult it was to know what to do with some of the stuff, especially things like hazardous waste or construction debris or electronics and tires. She realized that there were similar dumps in other rural areas of Pennsylvania, so she started the organization in Westmoreland County and it spread to other counties.
We started in 2000 with a voluntary board and staff as part of Pennsylvania CleanWays, which is now referred to as Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful. In 2005, Allegheny CleanWays became its own 501c3.
NHM: Essentially what does Allegheny CleanWays do?
Newman: We clean up land and the riverfronts; most of what we clean is on land, and that averages about 200 tons of trash a year. On our waterfronts, we average about 10-15 tons a year. Depending on the site, the process varies. If it’s an alleyway or empty lot, it’s pretty straightforward: we collect the items—everything that gets picked up gets weighed and put into our dump truck. If it’s on a wooded hillside, the process is more complicated as everything has to be hauled uphill.
We’ve done some cleanup on greenways where trash has been deep in the park. To get to it, we have to go down a long trail or deep into the woods. To get everything out, we may have to stage it in a few different piles and move it out of the woods.
We also do litter cleanups, which is much more straightforward. One of our favorite things to do is a neighborhood litter walk—one of our staff and a host from that neighborhood lead a group of volunteers through the area picking up trash. We have music, and the host tells us bit about the neighborhood. Then we go to a local establishment for refreshments afterwards. It’s fun and communal that way.
NHM: Do you clean year-round?
Newman: Winter is the best time for our land-based cleanups because there is no vegetation to block the trash. River cleanups generally run from late March or early April through the end of October/early November. We have a 26-foot pontoon boat and a pontoon barge that we use to take volunteers out and collect trash. When it’s full, we transfer what is on there to our barge and store it there until we have a barge load—it can hold a lot of tires and trash.
Each year we focus on one river—the staff lives on a houseboat for two weeks and goes down the river, stopping at different communities. They’ve swept each river once. This past year was the second time on the Allegheny, and we’ve already seen a drastic difference. We were feeling like we were more in maintenance mode. This year our focus is the Monongahela River.
NHM: How do you learn of illegal dumpsite locations?
Newman: The City of Pittsburgh’s assessment was vital to us as an organization—we used it to really start focusing and growing our program. It helped us identify where there was a lot of dumping and we’d go into that community. When we went in, we would already have an idea of where the dumping was. What we’ve found is that for every dumpsite that was in the original assessment, there were at least three that were missed because of the nature of Pittsburgh and how many abandoned roads there are. We also hear about new dumping through our website: we have a map, and people can report a dumpsite on that.
NHM: Does Allegheny CleanWays work to prevent illegal dumping through educational outreach?
Newman: Yes, 100 percent. Education is very important to us. We are trying to grow our education in classrooms. We do both in-class and on-the-riverfront presentations primarily. We’ve had students come down to the riverfront and do cleanups on our boats and learn about watershed health.
Another group we’re involved with is the Plastics Collaborative, which is focused on how to reduce single-use plastics in the area. A City Council member who is part of the group has proposed a plastic bag ban here in Pittsburgh that will be going into effect next year. We’ve launched a campaign to encourage people to stop littering and stop using as much single-use plastics.
When we did our assessment of the county, we sent each municipality not only a list of the sites we found, but also suggestions as to how to prevent dumping.
NHM: Why is what you do so important to our environment?
Newman: When litter breaks down, it contaminates the soil and the water. There are many studies being done about how much plastic we are ingesting at this point. We have a credit card’s worth of plastic in us because of the food we eat; plastics that have broken down in our environment are getting in us.
Wildlife can get caught in it and ingest it. Numerous studies show that fish and birds have stomachs loaded with plastic. A lot of trash that is thrown out mimics other foods that birds and fish are looking for, and it’s killing them.
There are socioeconomic issues too—litter is ugly and it brings down property values. It also affects the mental health of people who live in areas that are highly littered or where there is a lot of dumping. While it affects people from those communities the most, economically, it affects the city, the region, and the county, in our case, as a whole. People don’t want to move into an area that is dirty and ugly and depressed.
Recently, I was in a small town walking around and watching everyone, I mean everyone, cleaning up the sidewalks with brooms and sometimes mops and hoses. There was no litter in that town at all, and it was because everyone was doing their part. If we all did that, it would make a huge difference.
To learn more about Allegheny CleanWays, visit www.alleghenycleanways.org.