It costs the United States more than $11.5 billion annually to clean up litter, says Keep Liberty Beautiful, an affiliate of the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful. Litter also jeopardizes investment, harms the environment, drives down property values, and poses a threat to public safety.
Rochester is no better or worse than other cities when it comes to litter, officials say. And some neighborhoods and business districts have come up with innovative ways to fight litter. But for the most part, officials say, the public generally has a poor understanding of who is responsible for picking up litter and where. Many people want to point fingers, they say, without taking any personal responsibility for the problem.
"People grew up not understanding that everybody has to just bend over and pick up," says Moira Lemperle, president of the Monroe Avenue Merchants Association.
If litter is on your property, it's your responsibility to pick it up, officials say, even if you didn't put it there. Or you can call your Neighborhood Service Center for help, says Nancy Johns-Price, administrator of the Southeast NSC.
Johns-Price says that she can get the mess cleaned up and, if the litter is consistently coming from the same place, she'll approach that place personally.
The Rochester Police Department does issue tickets for littering, a spokesperson says, but doesn't track the number of tickets it issues.
Businesses are required by city code to keep their properties clean, as well as all areas within 100 feet of their property line, Johns-Price says. Though it's clear that not all businesses follow the rules.
"Even if it's just their sidewalk and their own curbs, they just don't do it," says Lemperle about the businesses on Monroe. "Very few do it. They can't be bothered. Then they wonder why some people in the community have a poor image of the area."
Lemperle says that she and her neighbors do cleanups a couple of times a year, but that the Monroe merchants don't participate.
"It's not a question of whether it's your job or not, but it's more a question of the perception you want [people] to have of your business," she says.
The City of Rochester does regular street cleaning and provides litter baskets in areas with high pedestrian traffic. The baskets are emptied at least once a week, according to the city's website. The city also does a once a year citywide cleanup called Clean Sweep — though some neighborhood representatives say that the sweep is more of a feel-good event than anything else.
"If it were truly to keep the neighborhoods clean, it would be every week, right?" says Allen Krisiloff, secretary for the Monroe Village Task Force.
The city's Department of Environment Services cleans up the parks, and Regional Transit Services takes care of the bus shelters.
Krisiloff says that the government should take a bigger role in keeping the city clean, but that he understands that city budgets all over the country are squeezed.
"We live in an era where a lot of people think their taxes are too high, and we live in an era of greed," he says. "And these things impact the city's ability to provide services."
Downtown, the section of Main Street from Plymouth Avenue to Chestnut Street has been designated an enhancement district, which means it gets extra attention in terms of litter pickup and other services. Those extra services would be expanded if the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation is successful in getting its Business Improvement District passed.
The district would substantially expand downtown's boundaries, and the properties inside the BID would, for a fee, receive services beyond those provided by the City of Rochester. Examples include maintenance projects, holiday decorations, safety patrols, marketing, sidewalk cleaning, and litter and weed removal.
RDDC President Heidi Zimmer-Myer often touts the district's scene-setting ability when she presents the BID concept. (Zimmer-Myer has been making the rounds, talking up the BID proposal to residents, businesses, and public officials.)
"I think cleanliness — and that includes litter and cigarette butts and stuff like that — it's very important," she says. "If an environment feels untended, people are less likely to feel comfortable in it. And, of course, if you're making significant investments — which a lot of people are down here — you want the environment to be clean and polished."
How often litter would be picked up under the BID depends on the street, Zimmer-Myer says, and how bad the litter problem is. On streets with a lot of activity, she says, litter would be picked up multiple times each day. Less frequent passes would be made in areas with lighter activity, she says.
Although the BID as currently proposed would cover about 25 percent of Monroe Village — from Averill Avenue to the Inner Loop — Lemperle says she isn't so sure that it would make much of a difference in the appearance of the avenue. The portion of Monroe that would be included in the district is generally well-maintained, she says. The BID needs to go all the way up Monroe to have an impact, she says.
BID aside, stricter enforcement of city code might force the merchants to work together to keep the area clean, Lemperle says. That's what pushed the East End businesses to come together to hire someone to clean up after the big bar nights, she says.
"Nobody has to worry about it," says City Council member Elaine Spaull, who represents the East End entertainment district. "Basically, it takes all the burden off of those bar owners and landlords. By Saturday morning and Sunday morning you wouldn't know that anybody had a party the night before."
But it all comes back to personal responsibility, officials say. There are people in the city who make picking up trash a part of their routine, they say, but for the most part, everyone thinks it's somebody else's job.
"To just blame it all on the bar traffic, or just to blame it on the residents or a particular merchant, I don't think it solves the problem," says Colleen McCarthy, of the Monroe Village Task Force. "I think people have to take shared responsibility and accept that it's part of urban life and try to work on it."