Paul Willms likes to document the city’s litter problem with his phone.
He has photos of garbage trapped like fish in chain link fences, dozens of dog-waste bags hanging from a tree like Christmas ornaments, detritus filled ditches and one of his favourite photos; a swirling tornado of trash.
“There’s no better way to make people angry than to start a conversation about litter,” says Willms, whose record of refuse, and the places around town where it accumulates, provides motivation for the City of Cambridge sustainability planner.
Willms has been the staff liaison to the Cambridge City Green volunteers since 2006 and is leading this Saturday’s World Cleanup Day with their help.
The group of volunteers that formed in 1993 recruits thousands of Cambridge residents every year to "be the change they want to see in the world."
With the city's help, they develop, host, and support community environmental projects like tree plantings and litter clean ups.
In spring and fall, Cambridge City Green looks for innovative ways to engage residents from across the city to help pick up trash in parks, along roadsides and next to pathways.
Past events, like the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, focused on the banks of the Grand.
This year, the volunteer organization is aligning its fall cleanup with World Cleanup Day for the first time.
The Sept. 18 event is a global movement inviting 50 million volunteers in 180 countries to tackle the world’s solid waste problem.
“This year it was about connecting to a bigger, world effort,” Willms says.
Saturday’s event in Cambridge welcomes volunteers of all ages to take part by picking up a kit at one of three locations and heading out into their neighbourhoods for a few hours of cleanup.
The kits include red garbage bags, gloves, and a bag with instructions, a phone number and a QR code that links smartphone users to the City of Cambridge Service Page.
Safety pickers, the triggered extension grabbers that make it easy for people with back problems, are also available to volunteers.
Once the red bags are full, volunteers can log in to the page to order immediate garbage pickup from wherever they are.
The kits are available between 9 a.m. and noon at Riverbluffs Park at 251 George St. N., the Hespeler Arena at 640 Ellis Rd. and the King Street entrance to Riverside Park at 49 King St. W.
If it’s raining, volunteers can choose another day for their community cleanup.
City Green does its biggest cleanup in the spring, after the snow melts to reveal six months of accumulated litter.
John Forsyth got involved when his wife Sandy initiated the cleanups in Riverside Park 20 years ago and says it's about pride in your community.
The amount of volunteers participating every year is proof that Cambridge pride is strong.
Each cleanup attracts between 3,000 and 6,000 volunteers.
“I don’t want to brag but it’s the biggest one in the region,” Willms says. “Everyone makes it their own thing.”
The Ancient Mariners canoe club, for instance, will get in their canoes and pile them high with garbage picked out of the river.
Local companies get involved by promoting the events and encouraging staff to get involved. Schools send busloads of kids, and neighbourhood groups organize walks to rid local parks of waste.
“I call the litter cleanup in Hespeler a second reunion,” Willms says, explaining how the same people come out every year to make it a day-long social event.
“One year we had ‘Captain Garbage Pants’ as the mascot of one neighbourhood,” Willms laughs.
COVID posed quite the challenge for organizers who have every precaution in mind when connecting with volunteers who were eager to clean the city this spring in anticipation residents would be desperate to get outside.
This is something people of any age can participate in, Willms says.
Kids who might not otherwise be able to do a tree planting or other forms of environmental stewardship can help pick a piece of trash off the ground and put it in a bag.
“It’s got to be the easiest thing you can do,” Willms says.