Litter spills out of trash cans and dumpsters, and we’ve all seen people just throw their trash on the ground. According to the Keep America Beautiful campaign, each year over 11 billion dollars is spent cleaning up litter in the U.S., mostly by businesses and government. But what if picking up litter was more fun? Recently in Pittsburgh five neighborhoods in the city’s East End made a game of it: the first Pittsburgh Garbage Olympics. 

Last year Renee Robinson, a longtime East End resident, had the idea for neighborhoods to go head to head in a litter-busting competition. She says the intention was to make it a celebration of the good work that many residents are already doing by working together to clean up their communities. Plus, it could help build community relationships.

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Lena Andrews is an organizer of this year’s event, and member of the neighborhood group East Liberty Trash Warriors. They’ve been training with their bi-monthly litter pickups.

“I like the nature of competition, to me the Olympics says competition,” Andrews says. “But it also says participation.”

Teams in East Liberty, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Garfield and the Strip District had two hours on a Saturday morning  to pick up as much litter as possible, and put it in a designated location. Andrews says as far as rules go, teams weren’t allowed to take trash out of garbage cans or dumpsters, or place heavy non-trash items into the bags to get an advantage. She wasn’t too worried about that, anyway.

“I mean, I think people who pick up litter aren’t really cheaters,” Andrews laughs.

Sarah Shea from Pennsylvania Resources Council is the chair of the Clean Pittsburgh Commission, which works on the city’s litter and dumping issues. She went to all of the neighborhoods and weighed  the collected trash bags to determine which neighborhood won.

Shea says while litter is a pervasive problem in the city, it manifests itself in each Pittsburgh neighborhood in particular ways. Some neighborhoods, like the South Side, struggle with an influx of people coming in on the weekends. That can overflow trash cans. In other neighborhoods, overgrown lots and vacant properties attract litter.

LISTEN: “East Liberty Cleans Up at the Pittsburgh Garbage Olympics”

Mike Lee is with Strip District Neighbors. He kicked off the Garbage Olympics by handing out black plastic bags and gloves to volunteers in a foggy parking lot, sandwiched between two restaurants.

Lee says the Garbage Olympics coincides with their new initiative to tidy up this haven for weekend shoppers and nightlife and make it more resident-friendly.

“You know, sometimes, too, in a neighborhood like the Strip, which has a certain reputation, you kind of don’t see the trash as much as you would if you were in a nicer, residential neighborhood,” he says. “So it doesn’t stick out as much. But it’s here, so we need to take care of it.”

In a small parklet, Ana Caineta was competing with the Bloomfield Development Corporation. She’s originally from Portugal, and says there is definitely more litter in the U.S. But she says, there seems to be the same amount of cigarette butts. She was sweeping them up with a broom and dustpan.

Caineta says Pittsburgh does have more urban greenspaces, though. “I think you compensate a little bit.”

Sarah Shea says the Pittsburgh Trash Olympics is a great way to get neighborhood residents excited about something that can feel tedious, even for hardcore volunteers. But she says neighborhood cleanups are just one way to deal with the litter problem.

“It’s looking at enforcement of those dumpsters; it’s making sure our trash cans are emptied. Educating the public on trying to recycle items versus what they can throw out,” Shea says.

After all of the trash bags were weighed, Shea and other organizers announced the winner at a local restaurant over pizza.

The Lawrenceville clean-up crew succumbed to the East Liberty Trash Warriors in the final tally. Photo: Kara Holsopple

It was close, but the East Liberty Trash Warriors took home the prize: an upcycled trophy topped with a plush Oscar the Grouch doll.

In all, over 1400 pounds of garbage were collected. And even though Lena Andrews admits she wanted to win, she says it was more than just a race for the gold.

“I mean, right now in the country there’s a lot of issues that seem too big to do anything about,” Andrews says. “But litter is something you actually can do something about. You can get out there and pick it up and then you’re living in a beautiful, clean neighborhood.”

Andrews hopes this year’s pilot Pittsburgh Garbage Olympics will inspire more of the city’s 90 plus neighborhoods to join in next year. Organizers also want to include more neighbors in the planning and friendly competition.

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With reporting by Andy Kubis