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Champaign residents seek litter solutions after delayed city cleanup efforts, untracked complaints

Daria Makhneva / For CU-CitizenAccess and Dylan Tiger

When Patti Benz strolled to the bus stop after buying groceries on a sunny Monday afternoon, she couldn’t help but notice all the trash.

“It’s like a mini tornado came through here, and nobody seems to want to help,” Benz said. “I’ve never seen it this bad before.”

Benz, a frequent Walmart shopper and senior citizen, was not alone in her frustrations. Champaign residents erupted on social media in March about the excess litter in the Champaign area, especially North Prospect.

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the cleanup efforts of volunteers and community initiatives. For example, before COVID-19 hit, Champaign resident Michael Chrasta created the “Loving Our City” project aimed to clean the polluted North Prospect area. He intended to cooperate with “Meijer, Walmart, the City of Champaign, CU at Home, a couple of local HOAs, at least one church,” he said.

Walmart shopping carts were surrounded by trash on April 5, 2021.

“Meijer has donated funds and offered to send volunteers, Walmart planned to supply volunteers and has given us trash bags for free, and the City has offered support in terms of tools, disposing the trash and so on,” Chrasta said. “Walmart also installed two trash receptacles at the bus stop, and hired a man to clean up the grounds. The other major store up here is Aldi’s but I have not seen an interest yet in helping us with the problem.”      

A top discussion happened on Nextdoor, a neighborhood-based social media site, where local residents complained about the impact of the garbage generated from the North Prospect business zone. Users were worried about polluting the Ashland Park pond, which is in that area. 

Source: Nextdoor.com

In the comments, people discussed the solutions they have already tried or may try next. Some have attempted cleaning by themselves, and others tried reaching out to Neighborhood Services and the homeowner associations. However, nothing seemed to stick. 

Inspired by George Washington’s description of his beloved city Mount Vernon and the newly forming nation, Champaign resident Michael Chrasta founded “The Vine and The Fig Tree” community organization. He said he’s had “nothing but cooperation” with the city regarding the city cleanup project, particularly Neighborhood Services.

As Chrasta explained to CU-CitizenAccess, his organization supports cleaning up northern Champaign, “besides benefiting the arts, the Red Oak Rain Garden, helping to initiate a wildflower project for city streets…” 

In late spring this year, Chrasta expects “a revival” of the Loving Our City cleanup initiative that was cancelled in March 2020 as COVID-19 entered the community. 

Urbana Code Enforcement Officer Jason Arrasmith said the city hopes to resume its volunteer litter clean-up program later this year, which was also suspended due to the pandemic.

“No plans” for more public trash cans, litter complaints difficult to file

In March, a member of the “Spotted in Chambana” Facebook group shared a picture of the garbage she collected around her property after only two weeks. Karla Swanberg’s post garnered more than 200 reactions and 63 comments, and some of users underlined that they “have never seen [Champaign-Urbana] this bad.” 

Contrary to the consistent outcry of citizens on social media, city officials don’t receive more than 5-10 complaints a year, tied to specific addresses. 

“The Public Works Department also receives complaints from residents regarding litter from time to time,” said Nichole Millage, environmental sustainability specialist from City of Champaign Recycling. “We also do not track/record them, but I would say we also average 5-10 complaints per year.”     

But according to Tim Spear, code compliance manager for Champaign neighborhood services, the city is limited in what litter cases they can take action on and which ones can be tracked.

“It is difficult to say for sure how many [litter complaints] we receive per year as we are only able to track complaints tied to specific addresses,” Spear said in an email. “Complaints on general areas (like North Prospect) cannot be entered into our case management software.”

Discarded cigarettes and other trash lie in the dirt by a traffic cone next to the Walmart bus stop in Champaign on April 5, 2021.

The City of Champaign maintains 235 public trash cans and has “no current plans to expand the program any further at this time,” said Kris Koester, administrative services manager from the Public Works Department, in an email to CU-CitizenAccess. 

The annual contract costs the city $103,020.48 to service the trash and recycling cans. Each can costs the city an estimated $36.50 per month, depending on the service route and ongoing construction.

The City of Champaign provides trash cans mostly in high foot traffic areas: Downtown, University District, Boneyard Basin, University Ave. Area, University Ave. and Fifth Street Area, Bloomington Road (between Bradley and Hagen), Central High School, Preservation Pond and Glenn Park. 

Refuse-Can-Locations-Table

This list does not include the North Prospect area, as well as less “busy” Champaign streets. 

“The City does budget for the expansion of trash and recycling cans as construction projects arise (e.g. MCORE), and occasionally as citizen requests come in (if a budget request allows),” Koester said. “To put into perspective on how the City has expanded the program in recent years, in 2015 the hauler service contract was bid out with 173 cans on the collection schedule. Today there are 235 cans being serviced.”     

A trash bag blowing in the wind by the Walmart bus stop in Champaign on April 5, 2021.

The “Spotted in Chambana” members took to the comments section of the post specifying the locations where they’ve also picked up litter. Commenters debated about the reasons for the enormous amount of trash. Some blamed the wind, others blamed irresponsible people who throw trash on the streets. Inattentive collectors who do not care about the trash dropped from garbage collection trucks, faced criticism as well. 

Social media users were annoyed with cleaning their private yards from others’ litter, too.

Homeless people clean up Champaign-Urbana throughout pandemic

Trash is spread across the field next to Walmart in Champaign, currently for sale by Devonshire Realty.

The Neighborhood Services department sponsors the “Keep Champaign Beautiful” initiative, alongside the Public Works and Planning and Development departments. Spear from neighborhood services explained to CU-CitizenAccess that “Keep Champaign Beautiful” is sponsored by the city and helps it to assemble cleanup campaigns.

Spear said, The Vine and The Fig Tree in the North Prospect area, and another organization “CU@Work” assists in “gathering litter City wide.”  

Champaign Township Supervisor Andrew Quarnstrom said the organization CU@Work does litter cleanup work with homeless people around all of Champaign.

“We continued to operate through most of the pandemic,” Quarnstrom said. “Almost all of the CU@Work program is done outdoors so the risks were less concerning than if we were indoors. As long as it’s safe, in Champaign, and on public property, we will tackle it.” 

The CU@Work crew size is usually between six to 10 people, so projects take time because of the area needing to be covered. According to Quarnstrom, by the time cleanup crews finish an area, the place where they started often already has excess litter again.

Daria Makhneva / For CU-CitizenAccess

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