For the Blight Busters of Gwinnett Litter Cleanup & Quality of Life Volunteer Group, its business is picking up…one piece of litter at a time.
“We fight the fight to clean our communities because it’s ugly, it keeps crime down, and property values up,” said Donna Swessel, co-founder, along with her husband, Dennis of the group. “They all go hand-in-hand. We are a tiny group, but we are mighty.”
The Swessels, who picked up litter in Tucson, Arizona, moved here in 2018, and began picking up litter and debris before starting their Facebook group on June 25, 2021.
“We mainly work where the members that attend events live: Centerville, Lilburn, Lawrenceville, Snellville, Loganville, and Grayson,” she said.
The group has 342 members with a handful participating in group cleanups (see photos). “We have members who clean up independently but aren’t into posting on Facebook, so they send me their data,” she said.
According to Donna, summer is not the best time for litter cleanup. “Besides summer sports and vacations, it’s hot and the overgrowth of grass, brush and poison ivy makes our attendance low at cleanup events,” she said. “The cooler months are eye-opening. Without the brush, you can see trash tossed in the wooded areas, illegally dumped tires, mattresses, furniture, and the amount of trash picked up is doubled.”
BBG hosts litter cleanups on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, as individuals pick a road to work. “We check for illegal dumping, pull signs, and pick up trash,” she said. “We have hauled in so many tires, couches, and other bulk items left on the roadside that it's just insane. We also find a lot of contractor debris illegally dumped.”
To date, the organization has hauled in 1,316 bags of trash, removed 492 illegally dumped tires from the roadside, pulled 1,575 illegally placed spam signs, and reported 92 Gwinnett County code enforcement or Department of Transportation (DOT)-related issues, Donna said. Members have donated 766 hours of their time, and the average age of a member is 57.
Donna said the Gwinnett Clean & Beautiful Adopt-A-Road and Adopt-A-Stream programs are good ones since knowing a road is adopted helps the ongoing fight against litter. These programs require participants to clean their one mile stretch of road at least four times per year.
Quality of Life issues the group looks for include unmaintained residential and business properties (grass, weeds, litter, overflowing dumpsters,) clogged storm drains, potholes, downed street signs, and illegal dumping.
“My biggest fight is illegal dumping, especially the ongoing blatant dumping at a couple of retail and donation stores on Centerville Highway and Stone Mountain Highway in unincorporated Gwinnett County,” she said.
BBG members find many instances of illegal tire dumping, furniture, mattresses, and moveout debris in “easy drop” areas.
“We removed 18 tractor-trailer tires from the side of Oak Road at one cleanup and 66 bags of mostly beer and alcohol bottles from Huff Road,” Donna said. “We’ve recently started noting highly littered roadsides with alcohol containers in hopes we can get some extra presence by our men and women in blue.”
Donna said BBG will help citizens navigate county web portals to report these types of quality-of-life issues. “We let our members know that if we don’t know the answer to their problem, we will do our best to find the solution for them,” she said.
“We wish that more citizens would pick the trash up directly in front of their property or business,” she added. “This would cut down on the amount of trash blowing around, ending up on roadsides and in our waterways.”
During a typical cleanup session, members will fill a bag, pull a tire from the woods, etc., and place them on the roadside. At day’s end, the Swessel’s truck is used to pick up trash, placing it in a pile on the right-of-way intersection.
“We then put a post-project report in through the Gwinnett Clean & Beautiful webpage, and they have DOT pick up the pile within a couple of days,” Donna said. “If working within city limits, you need to check requirements for pickup before scheduling an event.”
Groups don’t need a license to pick up trash on roadway rights-of-way. “You can legally pull spam signs from the ROW, telephones poles, and street signs,” Donna said. “Citizens can read the sign ordinance and code violations on the Gwinnett County webpage.
What does the future hold for the group?
“Dennis and I don’t understand why we need to have high attendance at pertinent civic meetings when our litter and blight problems are so obvious,” Donna said. “How can an elected official drive our roads with blind eyes and do nothing about it?”
She added that more help is needed from government entities and people in charge of making decisions. “Our fines are not stiff enough, we could use more signage, and laws need to be changed.”
Interested citizens can find Blight Busters of Gwinnett on Facebook to sign up for an event or to join the group.
“You can be active on the page to learn all the things citizens can do on their own to fight litter and blight, and to keep our communities clean and safe,” Donna concluded.