Fort Worth

Talking trash: Fort Worth gets serious about litter problem

German Vazquez, field operations superintendent for Fort Worth code compliance department leading a crew on East Lancaster in Fort Worth on Tuesday.
German Vazquez, field operations superintendent for Fort Worth code compliance department leading a crew on East Lancaster in Fort Worth on Tuesday. Star-Telegram

Fort Worth wants to know, seriously, why people are still littering.

In their effort to curb the amount of garbage piling up on city roads and elsewhere, Fort Worth has consolidated its anti-littering and clean-up programs to the Code Compliance Department and will soon undertake a new approach to combat the issue. The city will join regional and state efforts that are in the works, as well.

The tagline, Still Littering — Seriously?, is a part of their latest public effort.

Brandon Bennett, Code Compliance director, said cities nationwide are experiencing a rise in litter.

And like those other cities, Fort Worth’s staff and resources once devoted to litter efforts and reduced during the lean Great Recession years, have not made it back into budgets, he said. Even though the economic downturn ended six years ago, the city still doesn’t have the money or the people needed to stay on top of the trash.

Litter has gotten so bad in Fort Worth in some areas that a few days after it’s been cleaned, it’s littered again, Bennett said.

“That’s not good,” Bennett said.

Between October 2014 and September, the city picked up 912,685 pounds of litter, which is enough to fill 48 garbage trucks (average truck holds about 9.5 tons) or 45,600, 33-gallon trash bags. The city removed 2,068 scrap tires and cleaned 214 lane miles.

Crews also collected 3,508 tons of illegally dumped trash in Fort Worth, a problem that has become chronic, said German Vazquez, Code Compliance’s field operations superintendent.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Vazquez said. “I talk to a lot of cities around the U.S. They have the same issue. If you get used to seeing litter, it becomes a natural sight to see. We need to change the mentality. We can throw millions of dollars at it, but we need the citizens to help us.”

Fewer litter crews

During the recession, the city relied heavily on people who were trying to meet court-ordered community service hours to pick up trash. That’s still true today, but the demand for community service workers is so great, there aren’t enough to go around, Bennett said.

In 2012, the city had no litter crews, Bennett said.

Since then, the city has reorganized and merged environmental management and solid waste into the code compliance department and has been able to designate five employees to oversee community service teams. In fiscal 2013, the last figure available, community service workers spent 12,688 hours picking up trash, a nearly $2.9 million value, according to city figures.

This year, the city budgeted $65,368 to pay for crews to pick up litter along Interstates 35W and 30, starting where the highways cross each other downtown and then working their way out. Litter abatement crews will focus on the entryways to the Central Business District, Cultural District and Medical District.

Bennett said the city is looking at buying or leasing street sweepers again and so-called “suck trucks,” or trucks with large, movable vacuum hoses that pick up garbage along curbs and roadways.

But, what’s most effective is getting people not to litter or when they see litter, to help pick it up, he said.

“What happens, either you pick it up, your neighbor picks it up, or it blows down into a storm basin and it floats out into the river, blows off into a field,” Bennett said. “Litter does not get picked up in the city unless everybody in the city picks it up.”

Litter begets litter

People are less likely to litter in areas that are clean, Bennett said.

“This is much like graffiti back in the day. At one point, we relied on the public to paint over graffiti. The quicker it was painted over, the less there is. The same thing goes with litter,” Bennett said. “The more we can keep an area clean over a period of time, the less litter there’s going to be in the long term.”

A few weeks ago, the city received some complaints about a lot of trash in the Trinity River. When crews looked into it, they learned that the sponsors of an event held by the river didn’t put out enough cans for folks to put trash in, nor did they empty the ones they had, Bennett said.

“One of the big things on this, we have to move away from calling people who litter, litterbugs. They’re litter criminals,” Bennett said. “When somebody opens up their door at a red light and takes a fast food bag and dumps it on the street, that is not a litter bug, that is criminal offense.”

The city has reached out to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce to get out the word about keeping litter picked up. The city wants businesses to be sure they’re providing receptacles for customers and are keeping dumpster lids closed and emptied when full.

In January, Fort Worth will host a litter summit, inviting the Tarrant Water Regional District, area chambers of commerce, North Central Texas Council of Government, local businesses, Fort Worth school district representatives, Texas Department of Transportation officials, and others who play a role in the environmental well-being of the city.

“We have to get everybody picking up litter and everybody identifying what the sources of litter are, and working to reducing those sources,” Bennett said.

Litter facts

▪ 1 in 4 Texans admits to littering in the past year.

▪ Approximately 435 million pieces of visible litter accumulate on Texas roadways each year.

▪ Tobacco trash is the most common form of litter found on Texas roadways.

▪ Tire debris is the second largest component of litter.

Source: Texas Department of Transportation

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