241 cities try to reeducate Americans on littering

No city's image is enhanced by papers and trash lining its streets and sidewalks. But effectively getting rid of litter has proved a nagging and persistent problem for most urban areas. The traditional reaction from concerned citizens, businessmen, and city leaders has been to tackle it by a massive annual cleanup blitz in which everyone available pitches in.

While that method will probably always stand alone for its impressive before-and-after results, a quieter, daily educational approach is slowly gaining endorsement as a more effective, long-term answer to the problem. Its aim is to stop litter before it starts.

Davenport (pop. 101,000) is one of 241 cities currently plugging away at the litter problem under the new approach. All are certified as ''Clean Community Systems'' by Keep American Beautiful (KAB), a nonprofit environmental improvement organization funded by a number of industries. KAB supplies cities that meet its standards and follow its guidelines with literature and counseling.

The emphasis is to involve as many citizens and business leaders as possible and to line up firm self-help pledges from specific segments of the business community.

''Our job isn't to go out with a shovel and pick up the litter ourselves,'' explains Mary Ellen Chamberlain, executive coordinator of Operation Clean Davenport.

She admits that she is personally prone to stuff gum wrappers and other litter in her pockets when she sees it, but adds, ''We're trying to reduce litter by changing the way people deal with it. . . . The idea is to get people involved in cleaning up after themselves.''

One way that Operation Clean Davenport, a joint city-business venture, follows up on that involvement once it has the pledges in hand is to send out action check lists, detailing common sense cleanup measures. So far, industrial leaders, retailers, and neighborhood groups here have all received them. Restaurants and construction sites are among the next targets.

Operation Clean Davenport, which draws its $31,500 annual budget on a 50-50 basis from the business community and the city, has more than 50 community leaders on its board of directors. Acting as a cheerleader and coordinator of the cleanup venture here, it does everything from supply interested groups with speakers and a slide show to selling trash containers at cost to local businesses for sidewalk placement.

For some participants, Davenport's citywide cleanup effort has sparked a little competition. ''Is your place as clean as ours?'' asks the marquee on the industrial engineering plant of Bill Kubec.

''We have to keep our place cleaner because of that sign and I think it's helped people around us to keep their grounds cleaner,'' he says.

Still, visible progress tends to be slow. ''An enormous amount of time and effort is required to sustain this kind of thing, and there are peaks and valleys,'' says Mr. Kubec. ''I think the city still has a long way to go.''

''It's not like a one-day cleanup campaign - it takes awhile to change attitudes,'' agrees Harold Bischman, another enthusiastic volunteer who runs a local catering service and who has been working on the draft of a more coordinated local antilitter law. ''With the annual Chamber of Commerce effort (Operation Clean Sweep - which still continues here) you really see the difference because the litter is there one day and gone the next. This is a different approach, and I do think we're on the right track and making progress.''

Indeed, one of the measuring rods used in all KAB cities is a system of photographing random city sites at varying times and comparing litter counts. By this measure, according to Mrs. Chamberlain, Davenport has improved by better than 50 percent since the litter crackdown first began here in June 1980.

The focus here - as in other educational programs - is to persuade those who put out the trash in the first place, and transport it, to do it in an orderly way that keeps the lid on. The great bulk of litter, says Mrs. Chamberlain, comes from uncontainerized trash - an uncovered truck or an improperly closed barrel of household litter. Only 20 percent of the total, she says, stems from the passing motorist or pedestrian. It is a key reason why she hopes the educational approach to litter control still can succeed.

''We could issue a lot of citations for violations,'' she says, ''but I think it's better to get people to sit down and talk about it, to see that they have a role and realize the long-term benefits.''

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