Rick Groger and Don Yager are a retired couple that has been together for 40 years, and for the last decade their daily routine has included battling litter in their neighborhood. While you’re biking along the Hiawatha trail or enjoying Minneapolis’ riverside parks, you might bump into these two kindly gentlemen armed with a trash picker and plastic bags.
During summer months, Rick and Don spend two or three hours on their daily walks. Rick brings a laser-like focus to spotting abandoned coffee sleeves and receipts among last fall’s dried leaves. Don follows close behind, holding two plastic bags — one for recyclables and another for trash. “These blue bristles are a rite of spring,” says Don, referring to the plastic brush bristles that city street sweepers leave behind in the gutter. Each season begets its own refuse, whether it’s firework wrappers, vodka bottles, or cigarette butts.
Rick and Don’s walking route focuses on public spaces, including Nicollet Island and the Hiawatha Bike Trail. While spending winters in Palm Springs, they prioritize cleaning up a desert field that fills with fast food detritus from a nearby shopping center.
Neither Rick nor Don can point to any single moment that inspired their pick-up routine. Rick is motivated to beautify the neighborhood, and Don is happy to help. Both of them enjoy the fresh air and exercise that’s now built into their days. “Initially I felt a little self conscious and awkward out there to be picking up trash, but once you start doing it, it becomes habit, and you feel good about it afterwards,” says Rick.
The benefits of Rick and Don’s daily walk extend far beyond sprucing up the city streets. They’ve befriended neighbors and regular bike commuters, while also connecting with grateful business owners and passersby. They’re on a first name basis with employees from Minneapolis Parks and Recreation, MnDOT, and Metro Transit. When they were living in St. Paul, a suspicious trail of litter ultimately led them to assist law enforcement in making a drug bust.
Trash is a major issue that harms natural habitats and aquatic life while hindering recreational use of waterways. Plastic debris is particularly detrimental to the environment, and not just for aesthetic reasons. When wildlife consume plastic, it causes toxic buildup in animal tissues. Rick and Don are well aware of the impact trash in gutters has on the Mississippi. “We certainly understand that if we had a heavy rainstorm, a lot of stuff gets washed down the drain and right into the river. It’s terrible. We pick up in the gutter because we know where it ends up eventually,” says Rick.
Litter isn’t the only culprit when it comes to water quality issues. Lawn fertilizers, deicing sidewalk salts, and pet waste all wash into the bodies of water that flow through our cities when it rains. To protect local waterways, keep your grass at 2½-3 inches long, fertilize your lawn just once in the fall, and sweep up leaves and grass clippings from streets and sidewalks.
If you’re inspired by Rick and Don to pick up trash in your neighborhood, “all it takes is a stick and a bag,” says Rick. He also recommends checking out Green Stick Army, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis that’s dedicated to organizing neighborhood clean-ups while raising litter awareness.