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Q&A with Janet Boscarino

Executive Director of Clean Memphis

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BIANCA PHILLIPS
  • Bianca Phillips

You wouldn't know it by looking at litter-saturated McKellar Lake or driving past the city's many illegal dump sites, but Memphis was named the "nation's cleanest city" from 1948 to 1951. And the city continued to receive national recognition for its cleanliness through the 1970s.

Since 2008, nonprofit organization Clean Memphis has been trying to set Memphis back on the sanitary path. This April, in conjunction with Earth Day (April 22nd), they're organizing daily (and sometimes twice daily) clean-up events, all the while "trying to make clean-up sexy" with contests and food trucks, according to Clean Memphis executive director Janet Boscarino.

On Earth Day, Clean Memphis is hosting a battle of the orthopedic companies with teams from Smith & Nephew, Wright Medical, and Medtronic competing to see which company can collect the most trash. And there's a community-wide Trash Flash Mob and food truck rodeo set for April 25th at Court Square Park. A calendar of all clean-ups can be viewed at cleanmemphis.org.

But if you ask Boscarino, every day is Earth Day. In 2013, more than 7,000 Clean Memphis volunteers collected nearly 8,000 bags of trash, just over 700 tires, and 26 mattresses. Plus, they work in schools to teach children about sustainability.

Bianca Phillips

Flyer: How did Clean Memphis get started?

Boscarino: We started as a group of concerned citizens. Every time we'd travel and come back to Memphis, it looked exceptionally littered compared to other cities. We put together a plan and got funding from the Hyde Foundation and the Turley Foundation. We get some funding from Shelby County.

The City of Memphis announced last week that it would provide Clean Memphis with a $50,000 grant to hire supervisors for your inmate clean-up crew.

We have a dedicated inmate crew that is made up of nonviolent, non-sex-offender inmates from the Penal Farm. We get them three days a week. And then on the other three days, we use court-ordered workers.

With the city funding, we could assign a person to go with them. If they go out with only the person from the corrections center who is there to make sure they don't run away, they pick up litter, but it's not like if we're with them.

What are your main focus areas?

One is the airport area since that is such an economic development area for the city. We're on Airways, Elvis Presley, Winchester, and Millbranch twice a week. And then we're in the Medical Center and downtown because those are also economic drivers. We make sure to include any parks in the area and tourist spots, like Graceland, Sun Studio, and Stax.

And you're also in classrooms?

[Our] mission is to establish a sustainable schools initiative. It'd be like a Project Green Fork for schools. Instead of talking to kids about clean-ups and recycling, it's engaging them in it so that they are acting and behaving sustainably with recycling programs, clean-up around their school grounds, and watershed education.

You're doing clean-ups every day in April. how does that differ from what you normally do?

We do clean-up six days a week anyway. And we do education all the time. We do summer camps at Bridges and environmental education with Girls Inc. So we're always doing something. But for April, we decided to do something every single day.

Which upcoming clean-up are you most excited about?

We can't wait to get our hands on the Watkins access to the Wolf River [on April 26th]. There are probably 500 tires down there and so much trash and debris.

What are some of the weirdest things you find?

We see a lot of diapers. It's really disgusting. And sometimes animals, which is the sad underbelly of dog fighting in this city. But primarily, it's tires, glass bottles, little whiskey bottles. And lots of construction debris, like carpet and stuff, that people are illegally dumping.

Do you get discouraged when you clean an area and revisit it only to find more litter?

We used to be one of the cleanest cities, and it took us a long time to lose that over the years. So now it will take a little while to turn that around. In the short run, it's about minimizing what is entering the storm-water system and the watershed, so that's why we're doing as many clean-ups as we can. But the long-term strategy has got to be educating people and getting people to think more environmentally and more sustainably. And we have to think, if we hadn't collected those 7,000 bags of litter last year, what would we look like? There are studies that show that if litter is present, people are more likely to litter.

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