Every fall, Michael Shiflett tugs on sturdy waders and protective gloves, treks into Ellerbe Creek and extracts plastic bottles, abandoned basketballs and any other floating garbage he sees.
Shiflett is a regular in the Big Sweep Clean Up, an annual multi-month event where volunteers pick up trash abandoned in Durham’s parks, creeks, and other green spaces.
Organized over several days in September and October, Big Sweep is not a one-time, good-deed outing. Thirty years of effort have turned what started as a statewide endeavor into a reliable way to recruit locals to help clean up Durham.
Durham’s Ellerbe Creek watershed has been Shiflett’s clean-up pet project since the 1990s. Winding through several city parks, its waters eventually reach Falls and Jordan lakes, Raleigh’s primary drinking water sources. That motivates Shiflett to keep it clean.
“We’re very fortunate because we’re at the top of the watershed. No one pees in our streams, so we get fresh water. But everything we flush from our washing machines and our toilets goes downstream into Raleigh,” said Shiflett, a retired medical technician.
Established in 1989, the clean up is now co-hosted by Keep Durham Beautiful, the Durham Public Works Department and the Durham County Soil and Water Conservation. With other initiatives, the outings help Durham stay in step with water quality standards set by the U.S. Clean Water Act.
“We work to keep stormwater clean that goes into our storm drains and ditches and then goes into our streams and rivers and eventually the ocean,” said Laura Smith, public education coordinator at Durham Public Works.
Programs like the Big Sweep are guided by the county’s sustainability roadmap and Durham Strategic Plan sustainability provisions that address environmental, equity and economic dimensions of local pollution problems.
People familiar with Big Sweep clean up sites say they see less trash at some places. But Durham’s litter problem is nowhere near solved. People still use sites like Northgate Park and Ellerbe Creek as mini trash dumps.
“I meet so many people who have no idea how bad our creeks were. It’s gotten better but every single year we do this we find Styrofoam, plastic bags, and things like athletic equipment in the creek,” Shiflett said.
That’s why volunteers are needed to keep trash from accumulating across the county.
“I’m not going to make an argument that using volunteers is the most efficient method, but we have seen success in terms of long-term engagement,” Smith said. “Our goal is to empower people to go out in their communities and become leaders in solving these problems.
Volunteers help Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association (ECWA) tend a number of preserves along the creek. Creek Week is an educational week of creek cleanups, tree plantings, and informative events in the Spring geared toward stopping littering at the source.
Keep Durham Beautiful conducts regular litter inventories, pick ups and tree plantings outside the Big Sweep season. That group also hands out gloves, trash bags, and neon vests in litter-prevention kits to elementary school students.
Shiflett said he enjoys introducing newcomers to a clean up. “You’re cleaning up somebody’s negligence, you’re making somebody else’s drinking water more palatable and the connections start hitting,” he said.
But after all the work, what happens to the waste?
Big Sweep volunteers last year they collected 17,000 pounds of trash. They sort what they find into clear recycling bags and black landfill bags. The county’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department carts all that to the Durham Transfer Station.
This year’s Sweep started with a Sept. 11 Day of Service at Long Meadow Park and will continue until Nov. 6. October sessions start Saturday with 29 groups and 39 individuals signed up to get to work at Hillside Park, Long Meadow Park, South Ellerbe Creek Trail and more.
Shiflett will be out there.
“I’m one of hundreds,” he said. “There are hundreds of people in Durham who do small things like this. It makes you feel good because there are a lot more better people in the world than there are negative people.”
At top: Michael Shiflett, right, poses in a photograph taken during a 1996 clean up, one keepsake he held onto during decades of volunteering.