Kansas City is overwhelmed by litter, but these rogue trash pickers won’t give up their fight
Stray garbage covers the ground in city parks and on boulevards. But because there's nobody tasked with picking up litter, regular Kansas Citians are taking matters into their own hands.
When Minnie Mitchell embarks on her daily trash-collecting stroll, you can tell she means business. She wears a tracksuit, hair tied back in a rag, pushing a compact cart loaded with supplies: trash bags, yard waste bags, ammonia spray, a broom and dustpan, a metal claw for grabbing.
The cart comes up higher than Mitchell's waist. She pushes it confidently down Agnes Avenue, just east of I-71, her chin poised with a defiant lift.
Mitchell is here, picking up litter, every day. "Cold, hot, no matter," she tells me.
At 72, Mitchell moves slowly, but she's plenty agile, darting without hesitation into neighbors' lawns when she spots an errant piece of paper or empty can. She drags overturned recycling bins from the curb right up to doorsteps, gently placing them right-side up before moving on.
As she walks her route, people shout hello from passing cars, slowing down to wave out the window. "Hi, Miss Minnie!" they call, then drive on.
"Miss Minnie" is famous in this part of Kansas City. She cleans her own side street, as well as Gregory Boulevard, right off the highway. She's been at it for decades.
Mitchell puts signs on big trash items — like furniture, or fallen tree limbs — littering the curb. She leaves her phone number next to a cursive note offering cash payments to anyone who will haul the objects away. "I won't even miss that $50," Mitchell says. "I don't miss stuff like that."
She mows lawns, too. Anything to make her neighborhood look its best.
"If I can help you, I'm gonna help you. Whether you help me pick the trash up or not, that don't bother me," Mitchell explains. "Some of 'em tell me, they say, 'Don't mow that yard, because the girl's boyfriend and her sons.' I said, 'Listen here, I'm not even looking at that. I'm looking at the yard.'"
Mitchell knows full well that, by the time she hits her route tomorrow, the streets will look exactly the same as they did today — and the day before, and the day before that. Litter finds a way back.
A city plagued by trash
I started noticing the trash strewn around Kansas City's parks and boulevards a long time ago, but it didn't really start bothering me until the pandemic.
When I was in my 20s, living in a small one-bedroom apartment without a balcony or patio, I complained to an older poet about my lack of outdoor space. She corrected me, pointing out the many beautiful front lawns that belonged to me personally — and then proceeded to name Kansas City's parks, one by one.
That idea of parks as our communal lawns stuck with me.
For years, I managed to edit the random bits of junk out of my view. Plastic bags, empty bottles, crumpled fast food wrappers; I didn't let them ruin otherwise lovely settings for picnics, walks and sunsets. But in 2020, either the trash problem worsened or I lost my energy for feats of selective vision.
When I spoke with him last year, Roosevelt Lyons — then Kansas City's deputy parks director — told me that the problem had, in fact, gotten worse.
"The amount of trash and litter that people leave behind, that has become really, really apparent as park usage has picked up," Lyons said.
So why wasn't the city taking care of it?
The short answer is: They're trying.
Resident engagement officer Kelly Jander joined the Parks Department right before the pandemic. The program she created — KC Parks Ambassadors— now involves a corps of about 130 volunteers putting in regular hours picking up garbage in parks and on boulevards.
But Jander points out that Kansas City has a lot of parks — 221 to be exact. And, yes, KC Parks employs small maintenance crews, but they are only tasked with collecting trash from receptacles. Which is technically where trash belongs. Combing through the underbrush to gather everything from soda straw wrappers to syringes isn't part of the job description.
This past Wednesday, 50 people — a combination of Parks staff and community volunteers — gathered at Penn Valley Park to pick up trash together, as a way of celebrating the early spring weather. I joined their ranks for an hour, and in that time, I cleared all the clutter from a cluster of trees where a lot of garbage accumulated in the dreary winter months. It felt deeply satisfying.
And yet, I became keenly aware that the effort-to-outcome ratio wasn't working in my favor. I'd cleaned a fraction of a fraction of one park out of hundreds. I'd temporarily beautified a modest thicket in a city with more than 12,000 acres of parkland.
It took an hour to clean up probably 20 square feet, an effort that required plucking styrofoam bits, cigarette boxes, a single sunglasses lens and even a dirty diaper from a tangle of weeds.
I will admit that, confronted with the diaper and a few other unsavory objects, my first instinct was to draw a line. I'm not handling that, I thought. Then another thought quickly followed: If the person in work gloves carrying a trash bag at a park cleanup event won't handle it, who will?
"I made a difference"
The truth is, trash gets removed from our green spaces the same way it ends up there — through the actions of ordinary Kansas Citians.
"Driving around, I would just kind of over the years see the trash just building up," says Aaron DeWitt, a volunteer parks ambassador. "And I'd kinda get that negative kind of feeling of like, self-righteousness, I guess. Like, 'Why isn't anyone doing anything about this trash?' And then I realized, 'I have two hands. I have two feet. I have that capability to pick up trash.' So I just decided one day to make it kind of my thing."
As a rural Ohioan who grew up on a farm, DeWitt says that 4-H programs instilled in him a spirit of service from a young age. But when he moved to Kansas City in 2004, he was utterly flabbergasted by the trash situation, and how it only got worse.
So DeWitt started out picking up litter on Cliff Drive a couple times a month. Nothing formal, just a small, occasional effort, whenever a little free time opened up.
Then he discovered a volunteer group picking up trash at Troost Lake Park on Saturday mornings. Seeing others showing up, too, inspired him, so he joined their effort.
In addition to those weekend cleanups, DeWitt now leads his own group every Monday on Paseo. He makes up the time away from his job by putting in extra hours in the early morning and evening.
"It's nice to kind of turn around and see that you made a difference in a spot," DeWitt says. "Like I can get out there, I can put my shoes on and take a bag and feel like I made a difference, like a real difference. I don't know if it matters to other people, but it matters to me. And I think it matters in the environment, you know, and the animals and nature."
When people see DeWitt picking up trash, they often assume he's either a city employee, or that he's out doing community service as a form of punishment.
DeWitt likes to quote Garth Brooks here: "I do this so the world will know that it will not change me."
"It's just about kind of keeping that space inside of me that it is of service and hope and possibility," he continues. "Just kind of keeping that alive. And that's one thing that I just kind of meditate on quite a bit as I'm picking up trash."
"People don't do what you do"
Minnie Mitchell isn't new to any of this. She's been living in her house in the NOBLE neighborhood for 50 years, and picking up trash for almost as long.
Her now-legendary trash routine started out small, when her kids were little. She'd pick up litter while they rode tricycles. "It gave me something to do," she says. "I thought it was the best thing ever."
At first, Mitchell's husband didn't care for her new habit, although he eventually came to accept and even appreciate what she was doing. "He was scared for me," she says.
People used to interrogate Mitchell's husband about her strange behavior. She had a desk job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after all. Did she really need to be sticking her nose in other people's trash?
Mitchell felt she did. "I read that a clean neighborhood is a safe neighborhood," she says, and studies in Philadelphia seem to corroborate that theory.
I went out trash-picking with Mitchell one gorgeous evening this past week. Several times over the course of our walk, her brazenness in traffic left me holding my breath, fearful that she wouldn't make it out alive.
She knows what she's doing, I quickly learned. But her route, bridging a highway and a residential area, is not for the faint of heart.
Most of the people she passes are fans, but not all. One gentleman cussed her out, calling her a nut and accusing her of snooping on folks for the city.
Mitchell says the longtime residents have gotten used to her; it's the newer neighbors who greet her with suspicion.
"They are not used to nobody going to the street and picking up trash every day," Mitchell says. "Some people have told me, 'People don't do this. People don't do what you do.'"
But they're wrong. People absolutely do this.
DeWitt and Mitchell don't know each other, but they have the same idea. And they're not alone — they're just outnumbered. There's more littering than cleaning up, and it would take a veritable trash army to correct that.
But Mitchell and DeWitt are also outnumbered, quite frankly, by people like me. People who look around at the litter and wonder why someone else isn't dealing with it.
When Mitchell goes out on her route, she loads her cart with a few extra pairs of work gloves in varying sizes — in case anyone offers to help.