By now you’ve seen the pictures or the video clips of a trash-clogged McKellar Lake. Your reactions probably included amazed disgust.  Unfortunately, people like us, who engage in cleanup activities, are not at all surprised.  Clean Memphis, Memphis City Beautiful, the Sierra Club and many other groups have performed numerous cleanup projects over the years with little sustainable difference.

Why?  Could it be a lack of education or awareness?  Apathy? Or as editor Chris Peck suggested in a recent column in The Commercial Appeal, are we all wrapped up in our own little worlds and as long as “my street” is clean, “my school” is good  — everything is fine?   We believe the answer is all of the above.

The real question: How do we change?  How do we get our citizens to realize that litter affects us all and that a clean environment is good for everyone?

Our answer: We need an intervention!

We need to use the tragedy and embarrassment of McKellar Lake as a catalyst for a campaign for cleanup and attitude change the likes of which Memphis has never seen. We need to engage every individual, neighborhood group, business, church, school and civic group in community cleanup and educational outreach.  Everyone should be involved.

Clean Memphis has divided the city into 31 zones that provide an ideal framework for collaboration within geographic boundaries.  Zone leaders could coordinate strategic cleanup and educational activities within their zone.  With the help of other zone partners they could identify areas that are most problematic and work to engage everyone within the zone to participate.  There is no better way to raise awareness, cultivate environmental stewardship and foster civic responsibility than to engage people in the cleanup process.

Let me be clear. There is an enormous amount of cleanup activity already going on in and around Memphis.  Memphis City Beautiful loans out tools and other supplies weekly to neighborhood groups and other agencies like ours to support cleanup activities.  They also provide anti-litter education for schools.  The Memphis and Shelby County mayors and their staffs are highly focused on addressing litter and blight in Memphis.  There are eight Police-Joint Agency Partnerships that organize cleanups, identify code issues and report on crime trends.  Clean Memphis organizes cleanups almost every weekend in addition to monthly sweeps of high-profile areas around Graceland, the National Civil Rights Museum, Stax and Sun Studios.  These activities are important and must continue; however, we must expand the reach of our collective efforts to include the participation of everyone in the city — not just in cleanup but in the cultivation of civic responsibility. A new idea coming from Canada involves fostering environmental responsibility from employees in the commercial sector, Mississauga commercial cleaning services hold regular information seminars for their employees as well as providing free access to recycling services for employees to make it easy to stay green at home.

In 2009 Keep America Beautiful commissioned a Litter in America study from California State University.  The key findings of this study are revealing:

1)  People matter. Most littering observed in the study  —  81 percent  —  was committed “with intent” by the individual, and was mainly attributable to lack of individual awareness or sense of obligation.

2)  Context matters. Fifteen percent of all littering can be attributed to context. The strongest contextual contributor to littering is the prevalence of existing litter. In other words, litter begets litter.

3)  Age matters. Older individuals (30 years and over) littered less than younger individuals. But gender, surprisingly, was not related to litter rates.

On May 7 Clean Memphis will coordinate a citywide cleanup.  Two locations in each of the 31 zones will be designated for organized cleanups.  Numerous businesses, community groups and government agencies have already committed their support.  Individuals will be able to register for a cleanup site of his or her choice through our website,, in early April.  Our goal is not a “one-shot” cleanup, but rather the engagement of as many people as possible in the “mission” of cleaning up the city.

The May 7 cleanup is the kick-off for our campaign to make Memphis a cleaner city.  When Living Lands & Waters, the group that has been conducting the massive cleanup of McKellar Lake, returns this time next year to continue their efforts, wouldn’t it be great if we could just take them out for ribs and some brews because their work here was already done?

Janet Boscarino is executive director of Clean Memphis.  Contact her at 488-6786 or