One man’s trash might be another’s treasure, but when trash becomes litter, there are two guys and a small army who are working to put it in its place.
Enter Daniel Paschall, 26, and Chandler Moore, 29, who arrived in New Orleans from Virginia two years ago. What started as a project to clean up their own neighborhoods has evolved into a citywide effort to keep the city’s green spaces, well, green. NOLA Trash Mob was born in the early spring of this year.
“It grew into a weekly gathering at different litter-heavy locations throughout the city that we would pick beforehand with some help from different neighborhood organizations,” Paschall said. On weekends, Paschall and Moore and willing volunteers head out to empty lots and neighborhood green spaces where trash has become an eyesore.
“You would be surprised at how much can be done in an hour,” Paschall said.
Paschall, a student of environmental engineering, had visited New Orleans with his girlfriend; the two fell in love with the city and wanted to return. Moore, who plays guitar and banjo, came to Tulane to get his masters in music. Although both Paschall and Moore were from Virginia, they met here through a mutual friend. Like most newcomers to the city, they bonded over the affection they had for New Orleans, but often felt they were looking at its charm through a veil of litter.
“At first we were confused. But the trash dug at me and kicked at me every day,” said Paschall, who bikes daily to his job as a customer service associate and jack-of-all-trades at The Green Project, a nonprofit program that sells recycled building materials and promotes environmental education.
Commuting on two wheels, Paschall cannot ignore what he sees. He and Moore were both amazed at the vast amount of green space in the city, but even more surprised at the amount of trash those prize places collected.
But with their newly formed trash mob, they found that transformation was swift.
“We typically have around 10 people come out to the litter clean-ups, or ‘trash mobs,’ as we call them, and we pick up trash and recyclables for an hour. Having a group of people working together helps to make trashed sites that were previously too intimidating suddenly accessible.
The work goes much quicker with a group while also being a social and even therapeutic experience,” said Paschall, whose volunteers often bike to and from events, identifying even more areas along the way that need attention.
While most people might be disgusted at the litter, Paschall and Moore set out to understand it. After experiencing two years of Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, second lines, and just about every festival imaginable, the two saw how the positives of the city nurtured one very negative side effect. When the good times roll, the trash is often left behind.
Paschall and Moore concede that New Orleans isn’t alone in this mentality; there are just more opportunities to leave trash behind.
“We live in a throw-away society. America likes to throw things on the ground,” said Moore. But he and Paschall see a reason New Orleans litter has such a cumulative effect. The joie de vivre that draws people to New Orleans is the same lifestyle that encourages littering.
“It’s all the reasons people want to be here,” said Paschall. “New Orleanians love to be outside, and they love to celebrate, and they are very social.” And it all comes down to the fact that those throw-me-somethin’ roots and the go-cup culture encourage leaving things on the ground.
“When there is a parade or a festival, there is always a clean-up crew afterwards, and people are accustomed to just leaving the remains of a good time on the ground,” Paschall said.
The reinforced behavior seems to extend to all kinds of outdoor activities — an outing in the park, a day at a food and music festival, or a picnic by the water.
So what exactly do members of a trash mob find that people who litter leave behind?
“Basically, you find what you would if someone put the contents of a house outside,” said Paschall. There are random pieces of clothing, furniture, lamps, sinks, books, damaged CDs, shoes.
Trash is something the one who tossed it no longer wants. But Paschall said many of these items can be recycled and put back into use in some form.
Picking up behind others has given the trash veterans some insight into the failed good intentions of local litterbugs.
“People seem want to put their litter somewhere. You will see planters and even old phone booths used as trash cans,” says Moore. And that’s another thing the trash guys have noticed — the scarcity of trash cans in public spaces. They also understand why passersby seeing litter on the ground are hesitant to pick it up.
“You can see the way one’s mentality toward an object shifts,” said Moore. “When you see a half-empty coffee cup left on a curb, that coffee cup seems untouchable.”
The fact that people are hesitant to pick up someone else’s refuse is a natural reflex, said Moore.
NOLA Trash Mob volunteers, however, never hesitate. They put on a pair of gloves, and they are ready to go. The Trash Mob co-founders also believe that when spaces are clean, they are more likely to stay clean. And when people see other people picking up trash, they are more likely to do the same.
The newly-formed trash crew has plucked litter in eastern New Orleans, the Irish Channel, St. Roch, the Lower Ninth, Uptown, Bayou St. John and Gert Town.
“Hopefully we can communicate to those who see us (picking up trash) the importance of taking care of the places we live.,” said Paschall, who hopes to get local schools, churches and clubs involved in the mission.
Getting children involved is a way to begin the education while influencing the parents, they say. The organization has already gotten small businesses to donate such items as trash bags.
The Trash Mob has adopted a new slogan that sums up their mission: “Less litter is more NOLA.”