This year’s annual cleanup of Mecklenburg County waterways will feature a new location and a pilot partnership as volunteers work to improve local water quality.
The Big Sweep 2013 will be held Sept. 28 and is part of an international nonprofit initiative that removes garbage from creeks and lakes. Jennifer Frost, water quality educator with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services, said the annual garbage sweeps help improve water quality by removing possible pollutants, as well as remove possible blockages that take up creek capacity and change the path of the water.
Iredell and Catawba County Big Sweep events are scheduled for Oct. 5, and Lincoln County’s events will be Oct. 12.
The Big Sweep cleanup has been in place in Mecklenburg County at least since the mid-90s, said Frost. The statewide initiative started as a coastal cleanup in 1987, according to ncbigsweep.org. Since then, all 100 counties in the state – and 90 countries worldwide – have opted to participate, and more than 11 million pounds of trash have been cleaned from nearly 28,000 miles of waterways in North Carolina alone.
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Frost said this year’s new location in Mecklenburg County is Stewart Creek and – in attempts to recycle some of the trash and debris pulled from area creeks – all local cleanup locations will partner with the city of Charlotte Solid Waste Service for the first time.
“We haven’t been able to recycle, and that’s always bothered us,” Frost said. “We’ll pilot recycling at each location to see what we can (divert to recycling).” While certain types of plastics aren’t accepted – and some items will be so dirty they would be considered a contaminant in the recycling process – Frost said organizers are optimistic.
“Anything we can divert into the recycling stream, we’re excited to try that,” Frost said.
“The most common things (pulled from waterways) are plastic soda bottles, plastic grocery bags and sports balls,” she said, noting golf, soccer and tennis balls are routine items.
There are typically six to seven locations around the county selected for cleanup each year, Frost said, and sweep locations consider a number of criteria, such as public access and available parking. The Stewart Creek location was selected in part because of those reasons, but also because the surrounding neighborhood has been working toward beautification, she said.
“That’s usually how it works. We’ll try one (location) out and if it works, it stays in rotation the following years.”
The two locations that consistently see the most volunteers are the sweeps at Latta Plantation in Huntersville and McMullen Creek in south Charlotte. “The University area is a close third, they all equally contribute to pounds of junk pulled,” she said.
“(Trash) is not usually the criteria we have to worry about... . We have more than 3,000 miles of creeks in Mecklenburg County. That’s about the distance from here to L.A.,” Frost said, adding it’s more than any other major municipality in the state.
“That’s a lot of area to cover, and we rely on their help as volunteers.”
Each year the number of volunteers who participate in Mecklenburg County fluctuates between 500 and 1,100, Frost said, but the average amount of trash collected locally remains surprisingly steady. “Interestingly enough, they almost always pick 10,000 pounds, regardless of the number (of volunteers),” she said.
Participants range from church groups and students working on community service hours to moms and Scout troops, Frost said. “Sometimes people just show up. They didn’t know it was going on (but are at the greenway) and just join in, which is always nice to see.”
Organizers said they often hear volunteer misconceptions that they’ll have to physically get into the water – “We never require people to do that,” Frost said – or that snakes are prevalent during the cleanup, which is also not true, said Frost. “(Snakes) are usually more scared of dozens of volunteers and usually scurry pretty fast,” she said, adding there haven’t been wildlife problems in her 11-plus years.