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Hamilton Spectator file photo by Kaz Novak

Hamilton Spectator file photo by Kaz Novak

This six-metre rusting storm culvert is one of Stewards of Cootes Watershed’s more spectacular finds during ongoing cleanup efforts that aim to rid the lower Cootes watershed of garbage by 2015.

Cootes stewards clean up paradise one piece at a time

Group’s ethos is no piece of garbage is too small to be left behind

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

When Ancaster resident Alan Hansell and fellow volunteers get together to haul garbage out of Cootes Paradise, it’s the big stuff that naturally catches the eye, like a six-metre section of a rusting storm culvert they dragged out with the help of a chain winch.

But as attested by the more than 800 bags of waste they’ve filled since the fall of 2012, they’re just as interested in the small scraps others might overlook.

“The first principle we adhere to is, not a single piece of garbage (gets left behind),” says Hansell, founder of Stewards of Cootes Watershed.

“This is not a one-day Earth Day, let’s do this in the spring cleanup and count how much we get. We’re interested in the smaller area, so that we get it entirely clean. We leave nothing behind.”

The group has set the lofty goal of ridding the Cootes watershed below the escarpment — including Spencer and Chedoke creeks — of refuse by 2015.

So far, it’s held 61 separate cleanups, attracting 235 volunteers who’ve toiled for 1,700 hours to remove more than 21 tonnes of garbage, including 240 tires, 83 shopping carts and nearly six tonnes of scrap metal.

“It’s not nearly what all of us think,” Hansell says. “Most of the garbage we pick up is legacy garbage. We pick up stubby beer bottles, we pick up steel pop cans, we pull out shopping carts from beside University Plaza that go almost back to Steinberg’s (grocery store).”

Hansell, who grew up in Dundas, says it’s important to get even the tiny plastic shards that can only be picked up by hand because they can be harmful to wildlife if ingested.

Change attitudes

But he also believes the no-piece-is-too-small approach serves another key purpose, one akin to the broken glass theory in policing that a well-maintained neighbourhood will be less conducive to crime.

“When you get something pristine, it does change people’s attitudes,” Hansell says, citing his group’s experience that cleaned-up areas have largely remained litter-free.

“I can’t claim that it’s a conscious process, but your hand just holds onto a coffee cup a lot better if you’re walking through a pristine area than if you’re walking through a garbage-strewn area.”

Apart from holding regular cleanups — the inaugural one for this year is set for March 30 — Hansen says Stewards of Cootes Paradise also tries to identify sources of junk entering Cootes.

The group convinced the owner of University Plaza in Dundas, for instance, to extend a fence atop an embankment to stop “a huge conglomeration of garage” from blowing into Ancaster Creek where the original barrier ended.

The city also changed how it dealt with Zamboni scrapings at J.L. Grightmire Arena after volunteers discovered the “goo” left over from red and blue ice markings washing into Spencer Creek.

Hansell, who used to work in industrial sales, says in these and other instances he’s found officials responsive once they become aware of a problem.

“This is not a difficult sell,” he says. “People jump on very quickly.”

Unprecedented effort

Jim Howlett, vice chair of the Hamilton Conservation Authority, which has been a beneficiary of 15 of the group’s cleanups, says he’s unaware of any other volunteer effort committed to cleaning up and maintaining a watershed.

“I have been waiting all my life to see something like this. The city couldn’t do it. I don’t think government can do it,” he says.

“When you’re talking about taking out dozens of tons out of the watershed, that’s hundred and hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars. Who can afford that? There’s people visioning it and rising to the challenge.”

Hansell says the group’s future plans include advocacy on issues related to the watershed’s health, like illegal sewer hookups that send sanitary waste into Chedoke Creek.

He says although the city has done some good work on the problem, it’s not made it a priority, including because of the prohibitive costs involved.

“I think the missing element in that whole process is citizens speaking up and saying, no, we want this to be a priority and we want to have this dealt with.”

For now, though, the group is focused on its inaugural clean up for this year, which takes place from 1 to 4 p.m. on March 30. For more details, call 289-239-7649, email stewardsofcootes@gmail.com or visit Stewards of Cootes Watershed on Facebook.

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