Cleaning Up Bushwick One Block At A Time

Since the pandemic started, and sanitation litter basket service got significantly cut, garbage issues have only gotten worse in Bushwick. Complaints about illegal dumping of trash, dirty sidewalks, missed collection, and derelict vehicles are among the top three issues Brooklyn Community Board 4 (CB4) has received the most complaints about since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Celestina Leon, CB4 District Manager told Bklyner.

“[Takeout] became a popular and necessary thing for businesses to survive. But it also created this garbage problem,” said Nicole De Santis, the Executive Director of the Clean Bushwick Initiative. “When you have budget cuts on top of communities that are already grossly underserved, you really notice the overflowing trash can.”

Litter on a sidewalk in Bushwick./ Anna Conkling Bklyner

The Clean Bushwick Initiative was created by neighbor Sarah Back, who has since moved to California, to do just that – clean up the streets of Bushwick. If a group of 30 volunteers shows up, they can collect between 60 and 70 trashbags full within one hour, says De Santis, who has been involved in the efforts since the early days of 2016, along with Assistant Director Kristen Tadrous.

“Clean Bushwick Initiative has helped connect newcomers and long-time residents to opportunities and resources to make a difference in the neighborhood through their cleanup events,” said Leon.

Volunteers planting trees./ Photo provided by De Santis

“The cleanups may seem ineffective at times due to the sheer volume of waste in Bushwick, although Clean Bushwick Initiative’s enthusiasm and community-centric efforts helped start larger conversations about waste and community accountability,” she added.  “The Clean Bushwick Initiative has willingly stepped up to play a part in reshaping that narrative, spotlighting how community members and stakeholders care about their blocks and how they look.”

Litter in Bushwick./ Anna Conkling Bklyner

“The [litter] problem can’t be stopped by more garbage pickups, more sanitation runs, more garbage cans,” said De Santis, whose organization participates in a monthly meeting of CB4 and the Sanitation Department to help tackle problems like illegal dumping. “It really has to be stopped by people caring about the greater environmental impact of trash.”

The Clean Bushwick Initiative promotes tree care, through their Tree Stewardship, where they clean and maintain tree beds to promote tree growth. The Initiative also looks after Bushwick’s Irving and Maria Hernandez parks, collecting and recycling discarded plastic bottles and cans, since the parks do not have a recycling program, like the GROWNYC one at McCarren Park.

As litter degrades, chemicals and microparticles, and poisons are released, it can then make its way into the soil, water, and the air. Recycling and limiting trash in the streets also reduces some of the health effects of being surrounded by litter.

“When you see a piece of litter on the street, it’s not just an unsightly kind of aesthetic issue. It actually can eventually become a health issue,” said De Santis. “It’s especially important to keep trees free of trash because they’re such a big environmental aid,” she added.

Volunteers with their pickup./ Photo provided by De Santis

Although the problem of trash is a “never-ending uphill battle,” said De Santis, the impact Clean Bushwick has had on her community goes beyond picking up litter.

“What’s great about these events is that people are really bonding, feeling a sense of pride, and collaborating with other people. It’s a positive experience during what’s been a very difficult (time),” she added.

“I believe any work you do In communities to make them healthier and more livable for all residents is worthwhile,” said De Santis.