Who are the Garbage Humans of ATX?
Trash has a funny habit of getting everywhere. Whether it's in a park, outside a gym or somewhere in your neighborhood, loose trash has become a part of daily life. Despite the most ambitious goals to divert landfill waste to reuse programs, some trash won't even make it to the dumpster.
Compelled to do something about it, Kellie Stiewert started the Garbage Humans of ATX Instagram account a couple of years ago with a friend. They organize and post about trash cleanup events in parks around town.
“I feel better about the way that I participate in society by actively doing things like this," Stiewert said.
Since they started the account, it has picked up more than 1,000 followers. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it's enough to allow Stiewert to plan regular cleanups that are pretty well attended.
“I'm very committed to doing them at least once a month," she said.
Hidden benefits for hidden residents
At a cleanup in Bartholomew Park in East Austin last month, I met Cody Cook, who lives on his bicycle and sleeps outdoors. For him, sleeping in a park was a choice.
“Other people maybe it became their life. It's just how they've had to deal with things.” he said.
Cook says privacy is something parks don't always provide, but it's something cleaning up an area can help give to the more permanent park residents.
“I want to be left alone or I want to be safe in the area I'm in,” he said. "The more we can clean up an area, the less likely other people may be paying attention to it.”
Stiewert says that's why the Garbage Humans of ATX keeps returning to Bartholomew Park.
“It's an effort to show them like — 'Hey, we care about you as well,'" she said.
Not everything volunteers find on the ground is trash. Stiewert warns them to look out for park residents who don't have a home to keep their stuff.
"Some of these things are people's possessions that they might come back for," she said, referring to clothing or sleeping materials. "If it's at all questionable, I advise people to leave it."
Fighting against 'climate doom'
Some of the volunteers at Bartholomew Park spoke of a feeling they called “climate doom,” where the climate crisis feels so daunting no amount of effort will make a difference. Stiewert said the cleanups are a way of fighting back against that feeling.
“All this trash that we're getting out of this creek bed isn't ending up in the ocean,” Stiewert said. “That's the only way I can comfort myself. It can be really overwhelming at times.”
The cleanups won't stop all trash from reaching the ocean, but the Garbage Humans are making an effort to improve their community.
“The cleanups [are] a reminder that through baby steps and teamwork, you know, we can accomplish anything,” Stiewert said.
Beyond the parks
Stiewert knows not everyone can attend a weekend trash cleanup, so she suggests an easy way to do something for your community: Find a bag, fill a bag. The idea is if you see a bag on the ground, pick it up and try to find enough trash to fill it before disposing of it.
“There's going to be trash around you," she said "and fill up that bag and throw it away and then move about your day.”