The coronavirus pandemic has caused people to see everyday things in a new light. For Johanna Landreneau, Glenda Pollard and several other Baton Rouge residents, the new perspective shined light on an old problem: litter.
But they didn’t just complain about it. They formed Clean Pelican, a nonprofit organization that holds monthly litter pickups, educates youths and adults about litter prevention and researches to identify areas where litter is particularly bad. Though they’re under no illusion that this will be a quick fix.
“We have a litter culture here right now that needs to be changed,” Landreneau said.
They’re unclear whether the pandemic exacerbated litter, though they said widespread use of disposable face masks was a visible contributor. But restrictions on air travel meant driving more, and the founders started noticing how the amount of roadside litter increased as they neared home.
“When we would come into Louisiana, we were the trashiest,” Pollard said. “The other states did not look as bad as we did on the interstate, and when we got closer and closer to Baton Rouge, we’d see more and more and more trash. I think that’s what ended up bringing us together.”
At Pollard’s urging, they recruited friends to hold litter cleanup days. Doing that had an unexpected effect: The more they picked up litter, the more they saw it at other times. That led to the residents launching Clean Pelican as a nonprofit organization that could develop resources to raise awareness and change attitudes.
Rather than rely on their network of friends, they recruited local businesses to invite employees to participate in cleanups, counting on those experiences to increase the number of people who would change their own behavior. Clean Pelican is attempting to start an anti-litter club at Episcopal High School that, if successful, can be duplicated in other schools. The organization also is working with education officials to create teaching materials and questions on the statewide LEAP tests regarding litter and making the state cleaner.
The organization has already shown that students can make a difference. A businessman asked Clean Pelican to look at the litter around roadside benches, Landreneau said. Most of them are not owned by the Capital Area Transportation System but are placed by outside contractors, which use the benches as miniature billboards.
When they discovered this, Global Geospatial Institute Managing Director Fran Harvey was looking for a project for the 4-H tech club she sponsors for middle and high school students through her company. Clean Pelican members drove the students to all the roadside benches in East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council’s District 11, and they recorded the locations and whether the benches were in good repair, the grass was cut and if there was litter around them. The contractors are contractually obligated to maintain the benches and surroundings.
More than half of the 151 benches got failing grades, Landreneau said, with 28 of the low-scoring benches belonging to CATS. Students John Harden and Caroline Waters presented Clean Pelican’s report to the Metro Council in April, and District 11 Councilwoman Laurie Adams told Landreneau the Metro Council wants Clean Pelican to study other districts while the council considers whether to renew the contracts.
Clean Pelican also hopes to use its influence to push city-parish government to contribute more to fighting litter. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has formed a litter task force, of which Clean Pelican is a part. It’s a start, Landreneau said.
“We have a lot of ordinances on litter that just aren’t enforced,” Landreneau said. “Every business that has more than 15 cars and parking spaces is supposed to have a trash can — at least one — and they’re supposed to be responsible for keeping the trash out of their space and throw away the trash. That is not enforced. What about fining those individuals and funding more trash pickup by (the Department of Public Works)? Something like that?”
In the meantime, Clean Pelican is continuing its monthly cleanup events and plans to hire an executive director and marketing person to help spread the word.
“We’ve created something people want to be a part of because we’re enthusiastic about it,” said board member Michael Hackett.