Eric Lester was looking for a good way to use his time. The Duluthian normally spends time making music and filling needs in his community. While he was out at an event on First Street, he noticed there was an accumulation of garbage.

"That's when I decided to go get a pack of 30 garbage bags and a pair of gloves and start picking up garbage," Lester said. "It's something I can do to make things a little bit better."

Lester started hosting weekly garbage cleanups every Tuesday from 6-8 p.m. He picks a different location every week and shares the information in a Facebook event. He's had a couple people join him.

"A lot of the time it's me by myself, but that's OK. The main point of it is to get garbage off the streets," Lester said. "Anytime I can get another dirty needle or discarded mask into a garbage bag, then it's a good day."

Lester might pick up garbage alone sometimes on Tuesdays, but he's not alone in his efforts to clean up in the time of COVID-19.

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A club dedicated to keeping the environment clean

Beverly VanAlstine has cleaned up a lot of trash in her time with Duluth Superior Eco Rotary. The club focuses on hands-on community projects with an environmental focus. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, VanAlstine missed meeting up with her fellow members in person.

"We started having Zoom meetings twice a month and while we were quarantined at home, we'd encourage each other to take a bag with whenever we'd go out for walks and clean up whatever we could see," VanAlstine said.

Members of Duluth Superior Eco Rotary pose next to their adopt-a-highway sign following a cleanup this spring. (Photo courtesy of Beverly VanAlstine)
Members of Duluth Superior Eco Rotary pose next to their adopt-a-highway sign following a cleanup this spring. (Photo courtesy of Beverly VanAlstine)

Since restrictions have loosened up a little bit, the group has been able to meet up again in public, while observing social distancing rules. A couple members worked together to clean up the ditches around The Home Depot in June.

"It's not one of our regular stretches and we weren't asked to do it. We just saw the need and decided to take it on," VanAlstine said.

The club maintains two stretches of highway through the Adopt a Highway program. In fact, they're about to clean up their newest Adopt a Highway section in the Norton Park neighborhood along Minnesota Highway 23 for the first time at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15. It is open to nonmembers of the club who want to help.

"One of our members noticed the sign saying it was available and that piqued our interest," VanAlstine said. "We try to take on projects in all areas of Duluth and Superior."

Cleaning up garbage is just one of the club's activities. They have also cleaned up invasive species, hosted talks by experts in the field and helped create sustainable events.

"Basically, we're a bunch of volunteers passionate about the environment and committed to our overall mission to enhance and preserve the region's natural beauty and resources," VanAlstine said.

Cleaning up the coasts

Want to help clean up but don't want a weekly or monthly commitment? Duluth and Superior are teaming up to host the Twin Ports Virtual Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 26. Residents are encouraged to get involved by signing up at duluthmn.gov/kdc (Keep Duluth Clean). People can go out in family units or small groups, pick a favorite section of coastline or part of their own neighborhood to clean.

"Everything that goes in our storm drains goes into our creeks and into the lake," organizer Cheryl Skafte said. "So by cleaning up around your neighborhood storm drain, you're essentially helping keep garbage from getting into the lake."

Volunteer Marcus Taintor poses near Fourth Street and Eleventh Avenue East after cleaning up garbage during the spring 2020 Twin Ports Coastal Cleanup. (Photo courtesy of Twin Ports Coastal Cleanup)
Volunteer Marcus Taintor poses near Fourth Street and Eleventh Avenue East after cleaning up garbage during the spring 2020 Twin Ports Coastal Cleanup. (Photo courtesy of Twin Ports Coastal Cleanup)

After cleaning up, participants are encouraged to throw whatever garbage they find into their own receptacles and fill out a litter report online to be entered into a drawing for prizes.

The cleanup is part of a global project called the International Coastal Cleanup which promotes cleanups in the spring and fall to keep garbage from contaminating waterways. This is the third year that Duluth and Superior have partnered together to promote the cleanup. The cities hosted a program this spring and had over 600 people volunteer despite the pandemic. Skafte said they've already had nearly 200 people sign up for the fall effort.

"It just points to the fact that when we come together, we can remove a ton of trash from our neighborhoods and sidewalks. It's exciting to see that many people come together like that," she said. "It's a small way to make the world a better place."

That's a sentiment echoed by Lester.

Some of the trash picked up near Fourth Street West recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Some of the trash picked up near Fourth Street West recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"It's important to figure out what you can do to make the world a better place," he said. "Sometimes it's the simple things, like picking up trash. It's a good place to start because at the end of the day, there's less garbage in the street and that's a good thing."

As for Lester, he's planning to continue his weekly garbage cleanups through the month of September, at which point he'll shift his focus back to collecting and distributing winter gear for people experiencing homelessness. His meetups can be found at facebook.com/MaximumTrashpacity. The page's name, "Garbage Kingdom," was inspired by what he saw on the streets late at night.