In 2021, Gregory Manley had been hired as a community outreach specialist by Allegheny CleanWays and Friends of the Riverfront, just as everyone and everything slowly started to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Large group volunteer events and activities would not be happening any time soon.
The two nonprofit organizations are committed to cleaning up and preserving the environment in the region, and despite the pandemic, it still needed help from volunteers to collect trash along public areas and the riverfronts.
What could get people out together again to do so safely?
And how could they have fun at the same time?
His idea? A Litter League with neighborhood teams collecting “improperly managed manufactured waste” and competing over a six-week period, interspersed with tournaments and active play. The teams could work outside, in their neighborhoods and beyond, winning prizes as well as helping preserve the environment.
The friendly competition he and a colleague developed then has been a success and is back for the third time this spring.
In its first two years, players from the Litter League collected 75,000 pounds of litter and trash from Allegheny County streets and green spaces, a news release reported. In 2023 the league anticipates increased participation and visibility for players and sponsors from April 21 to June 3, concluding with a Downtown tournament during the Three Rivers Arts Festival. A colleague division has been added to its neighborhood component, with a maximum of 10 teams for each one.
The Neighborhood Division, which includes any team of up to 12 friends and neighbors, currently features veteran teams from Penn Hills, Fineview and Beechview, as well as newcomers from Brookline, Millvale, Observatory Hill, California-Kirkbride, Sheraden and Mt. Lebanon. It is still seeking a neighborhood team from the Monongahela Valley, according to the release.
No fee is required for the neighborhood teams, as sponsors defray their expenses. Each colleague team pays $1,000 to help with those and other litter collections and environmental projects the two organizations plan throughout the year. Manley would like to have all the teams in place by April 1.
Manley and a former colleague, Amy O’Neill, created a rulebook and methods for teams to collect the litter, record their bounty online and tabulate the totals to determine the winners in four categories — the Helpers, Heavy Lifters, Archivists and Cleanup Artists.
“It’s not just for people to have the tools to collect litter but engage as well as connect with the practice of picking up litter,” he said. “We make it more than a chore but a fun way to explore and meet your neighbors, and we also wanted a way for businesses to connect with each other, too.”
He did some research as they prepared the first competition. He stumbled upon Ireland’s Tidy Towns competition, which started in 1958 and has become widespread and includes a prestigious award. Of course, with the Irish, having fun is a requirement, too.
The organizations had also received a grant from the Richard K. Mellon Foundation, which they used to recover buckets that businesses and restaurants were done with before they headed to the landfill. They cleaned and rebranded them and gave them to the teams with other cleanup supplies.
Teams have access to a manual and take part in a short training video and safety demonstration before starting to collect litter. Once the competition begins, players must submit photographic evidence of all litter they collect and its corresponding weight.
Manley serves as the referee for the teams and has not had a difficult time so far. “I have only disqualified two submissions in the last two years,” he said. “And I’d like to emphasize that sheer weight is not the only way to win the Litter League. Teams are awarded points for completing various challenges.” Manley posts weekly highlight reports to YouTube.
The competition includes three tournaments with 90 minutes of activity. This year the first one will be held in Etna, where the groups have an office, on Friday, April 21, appropriately one day before the official Earth Day. The second will be in the Mon Valley then the final one Downtown. Starting times are 2:30 p.m. for the Colleague Division and 6 p.m. for neighborhoods. A happy hour, with food and drink for participants, is tied into all three.
Manley’s favorite team name so far? Waste Deep from Civil and Environmental Consultants Inc. in Pittsburgh, which has competed for the past two years.
His favorite story (or at least one of them)? Last year during one of the tournaments during the Mexican War Streets Yard Sale and Pride Parade, one team tackled a dump site.
“They had scouted the area and went out with a minivan,” Manley said. Competition started to build among all the teams there just picking up “regular” litter off the streets, as the teams do not go onto private property.
The other team? “They pulled out tires and bed frames. They had organized a two-car system to keep delivering to the Dumpster in the last 20 minutes,” and by weight bested the others.
One thing to remember: Unlike other athletic competitions, it’s a noncontact sport. The only way to even come close to interacting is if competitors steal someone’s litter, he said. There is a three-second rule. Put down your trash, and, hey, it’s fair game.
Matt Indovina, 48, of Fineview, has been competing with his neighborhood team from the beginning.
The “trash elf,” as he calls himself, is Manley’s neighbor. They took a litter walk each Monday afternoon, finding lots of trash. The neighborhood has lots of dips and hollows, and people would use them as dump sites.
Now, not as much trash needs to be collected in that neighborhood anymore, which has views, Indovina said, to rival Mount Washington. So, the Litter League is a great way to help the environment, and he’s joined by his wife and at least one of his two daughters as well as six or eight neighbors. Their name? The 412 Redder Uppers.
How they operate: He organizes field trips to other neighborhoods for the team to seek items. For example, they head to the I-279 northern corridor, right near the neighborhoods that were demolished when that roadway was constructed. Why? It’s a gold mine for trash.
“The hillsides there have collected so much trash over the years,” he said. He’s found evidence that some of it has been there for 30 to 40 years. Indovina can tell by the labeling and designs on the cans and other trash, in particular the different types of pull tops on the beer cans. They haul up tires and air conditioners and bed frames.
And that makes the small 412 Redder Uppers formidable competitors in the Heavy Lifters category. His team is not large enough to compete in some of the categories, Indovina said, but they more than pull their weight.
He’s had people call the police on him when they see him stacking piles of tires and other trash around the neighborhoods. Indovina’s getting it ready for the city to come pick it up, but he can see why they make those calls. So he is considering getting some identifiable clothing for his team, possibly some T-shirts.
The dealer in collectibles, a business he operates with his wife, has been an active volunteer in the neighborhood he’s lived in the past nine years, serving on the Fineview Citizens Council and taking a seat on the Community Development Council board for one year.
The Litter League fills another part of his life, though, as well: “I find it meditative to pick up other people’s garbage,” Indovina said.
And Indovina said he enjoys competing in the Litter League archivist category. “You keep track of your litter, taking photos and writing,” he said. His team won that category last year because he recorded his entries like a Civil War soldier, “writing that litter was the enemy, and I was up against thousands of applesauce containers around Allegheny General Hospital.”
Even better, that last part was true. For some reason, those applesauce containers were there for the taking. And literary license.
Indovina said the city — it has operated its own Garbage Olympics through the Clean Pittsburgh Commission — does have illegal dumping, but some of the trash is natural. His neighborhood is next to some woods, and animals do get into the trash and tear it apart. Then winds can blow it around. “It’s just not all ignorant people throwing their trash out,” he said.
Wherever it came from, Friends of the Riverfront and Allegheny CleanWays is happy to see it collected and works hard, Manley said, to make it memorable for participants. This year’s event is presented by GeoTechnics. Manley has lined up Patagonia and Three Rivers Outdoors Company as sponsors for prizes and is still working on more.
One other thing: Manley believes participants realize another benefit to being outdoors together in the spring. “As you clean up, you’re watching flowers bloom,” he said. “It’s just great to be together. It creates bonds in people we’ve been missing a lot [since] the pandemic. This is a great way for people to have a task to focus on while they’re enjoying the outdoors.
“While we are removing litter, we are uncovering beauty. And afterward, we get to think more deeply about our ecosystem as we take our regular walks and pick up litter. We’re being asked to take care of our environment. This helps us get in touch and take care of the nature around us.”