What do you picture when you think of litter? Crumpled cups, plastic shopping bags, a candy bar wrapper maybe? While many people don’t consider cigarette butts a big deal or a significant part of litter, according to Mike Baum, executive director of Keep Virginia Beautiful, they comprise 38 percent of all litter.
Like a single cigarette butt, so much of what is discarded on the road, and what ends up in our rivers and streams, is a greater problem than most people realize. An affiliate of Keep America Beautiful and headquartered in Richmond, Keep Virginia Beautiful was established in 1953, with the mission to engage and unite Virginians to improve our natural and scenic environment. Through Keep Virginia Beautiful, individuals, families, and businesses are provided the opportunity to make a difference in communities through litter prevention, recycling, and beautification.
While Richmond readied itself for the UCI World Championship bike races in September 2015, Keep Virginia Beautiful sprang into action spearheading the RVA Community Improvement Blitz. The organization partnered with the City and other groups for litter removal and important community improvements, such as covering walls full of graffiti with fresh paint. Over the course of two weekends more than 500 volunteers, united by Keep Virginia Beautiful, picked up over eighty-three tons of trash and a thousand-plus pounds of recyclable material.
In honor of Earth Day last year, Keep Virginia Beautiful organized a cleanup in Shiplock Park along the canal and the Capital Trail. On America Recycles Day in November, 178 people participated in a drive-through recycling opportunity in the parking lot of Retail Merchants Association, resulting in the collection of one ton of recycling, and 12,000 pounds of electronics and general household items to be reused.
But Keep Virginia Beautiful’s defining program is 30 Grants in 30 Days, during which time the organization offers grants to groups throughout the state for recycling, litter prevention, or beautification projects. Since 2011, Keep Virginia Beautiful has awarded over $110,000 to 150 groups to empower them to make a positive and long-lasting difference in their respective communities. The stories are heartwarming, and the impact is significant in the schools, civic organizations, cities, and communities where they are taking place.
One of this year’s grant recipients, the City of Winchester, converted an old community pool into a garden area by adding leaf compost to enrich the soil it had been filled with and creating garden beds for the community. The Friends of Grayson Highlands State Park, in Mouth of Wilson, used its grant to purchase and install fourteen cigarette butt urns at the entrances and exits of its 4,500-acre park. And Clover Hill Elementary School, one of nine RVA grant winners, received funding to improve eight classroom trailers into environmentally themed classrooms that are equipped to promote recycling and environmental awareness.
“Our 30 Grants in 30 Days initiative is the backbone of our mission. It’s the best way to help small groups have a major impact in their community,” says Baum. “It’s a way for our sponsors and us to mobilize the power of volunteers to benefit the groups involved and the general public. The number of applications we receive continues to grow, with a record 116 applicants for the thirty grant awards offered this year.”
Looking ahead, Baum says Keep Virginia Beautiful will increase and focus its cigarette litter prevention plan efforts in Richmond. The three-year plan will focus on what the director refers to as “strategic transition points,” which are areas where smokers are most likely to discard cigarette butts, such as when going into a building or waiting at a bus stop. Proper signage and PSAs will educate citizens, and smokers will be provided with cigarette urns, pocket ashtrays, and portable auto ashtrays as an alternative to improperly disposing of cigarette butts. “These efforts are aimed at changing behaviors, and reinforcing the importance of not littering,” says Baum.
Everyone hates litter, but what can you do about it? Baum encourages Richmonders to join forces with other community members and support Keep Virginia Beautiful. “Volunteer for an hour, a day, or a longer term commitment to help with a cleanup or any of the other programs and projects that happen throughout the year. One of the best things about volunteering for Keep Virginia Beautiful is that you’re always welcome to include your kids,” Baum says. “After all, we’re doing this for our environment and for our kids!”