Outdoor Activity Of The Day: Pick Up Trash

Curious Citizens offer up some suggestions for making your daily walk beneficial to your health and the environment.

Litter pickup thumb
Jen Johnson / WBEZ
Litter pickup thumb
Jen Johnson / WBEZ

Outdoor Activity Of The Day: Pick Up Trash

Curious Citizens offer up some suggestions for making your daily walk beneficial to your health and the environment.

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Governor Pritzker’s “stay-at-home” order has left lots of Chicagoans wondering how ⁠they can safely enjoy the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the city’s lakefront, adjacent parks, the 606 and Riverwalk have been closed because people were congregating in large groups, many natural areas in the region remain open.

So people can still go outside to walk, run or bike ride, as long as they remain six feet away from other individuals. If these rules are followed, experts say spending time outdoors can be really good for mental and physical well-being.

We asked Chicagoans for ways they’ve spent time outside while practicing safe social distancing — and we’re highlighting an activity to try each day this week. Today we’re taking on litter pickup, which turns out is both great exercise and good for the environment.

Forest Preserves trash
Ken Grzeslo said he always carries a shopping bag and hand sanitizer with him whenever he goes on a walk or hike. He snapped this photo of a garbage pile during a hike in the Cook County forest preserves. (Courtesy Ken Grzeslo)

Take a walk — but make it eco-friendly

Cook County Forest Preserves spokeswoman Stacina Stagner said picking up litter is a good way to make your walk or hike more purposeful.

“When you’re following CDC guidelines for social distancing, cleaning up litter in your community or in a forest preserve is a great way to get outside, get fresh air, but still give back,” she said.

Tyrone Dobson manages volunteers for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. He said picking up trash in your neighborhood has many positive impacts on the environment, particularly on waterways.

“The trash or litter in the neighborhoods could make its way into storm drains and those drains could enter into a body of water, whether that be a stream, creek or the Chicago River,” he said. “So stopping it from getting into storm drains has huge benefits.”

Forest Park resident Kathleen Garness recommends documenting the type of litter you collect via a phone app called Litterati. You can also use the app to challenge your neighbors to keep your street or neighborhood clean.

Jen Johnson dyptich
DuPage County resident Jen Johnson said she’s set a goal of gathering 52 bags of garbage this year. She mostly picks up plastic bottles, fast food containers, cigarette butts and fishing gear. “I did notice, last year, that vaping cartridges were becoming more common.” (Courtesy Jen Johnson)

Be careful and keep your distance while picking up litter

Stagner said picking up litter is a perfect solo activity if you’re trying to get outside while following social distancing rules. However, she recommends wearing protective gear like rubber or nitrile gloves when handling trash.

“Or — even better — use a trash grabber or trash poker so you’re not touching litter directly,” she said.

Another reason to use a trash grabber is that gloves will be hard to find right now due to high demand. You can order a trash grabber online or at home improvement and hardware stores.

Stagner said if you’re picking up trash in the forest preserves and come across any potentially hazardous items, report to Forest Preserves police for safe removal by calling (708) 771-1000. If you’re in your neighborhood and need help with disposing any items, call 311 or contact your local alderman.

Once you’re done collecting litter, Dobson recommends recycling any items that qualify. Just make sure to double check recycling rules in your city to make sure you’re not contaminating the batch with any items that aren’t accepted.

Litter grabber
Jen Johnson uses trash grabbers to pick up litter during her walks. “I use a grabbing instrument so I don’t really touch anything,” she said. “I definitely wash my hands when I am done. No touching of face either. Ew.” (Courtesy Jen Johnson)

Curious Citizens on the benefits of picking up litter during COVID-19

“Litter cleanup is something people of all ages can do. It’s a really great activity for families or people who have a favorite trail and love going for regular walks and feel a sense of connection to a particular area.” - Stacina Stagner

“Having this experience puts you intimately close with pollution in a way that you normally wouldn’t interact with it and it highlights the problem in a way you can’t forget. You become more attuned to the issue after you’ve found 100 cigarette butts or plastic bottles. I’ve changed the way I go about my daily life because of these experiences I’ve had.” - Tyrone Dobson

“I figure everyone should give a little bit back to the community and so I feel I am doing my small part. I guess I find being out in nature relaxing. I like coming out here, just being away from the noise. I look around at the animals, listen to the birds, listen to the wind blow through the leaves and just relax.” - Paul Liston

Katherine Nagasawa is the multimedia producer for Curious City. You can reach her at knagasawa@wbez.org.