I learned about Culture of Cleanliness (COC) the way I learn about most things: while scrolling through my Instagram feed. A few clicks later and I was reading their mission statement, which states: “The goal is to improve the quality of life in New Orleans, include equitable access to cleaner public spaces, as well as a deep cultural shift promoting waste reduction and stewardship. We skillfully connect communities with resources and cultivate self-initiative.” The issues they currently tackle are commercial dumping, residential littering, clogged drains, lack of code enforcement, blight, and crime. According to the organization’s internal reporting, they have cleaned up litter from over 50 miles of major thoroughfares, removed and transported over 300 tires from public right-of-ways, and cleared over 38 illegal dump sites. I stopped by their most recent neighborhood cleanup on September 16 (in observance of World Cleanup Day) to speak with COC co-founders Gregory Swafford and Sage Michael Pellet, COC Director of Sustainability Ben Bagwill, and community participant Christopher Lang.
What was the impetus for starting COC?
COVID was the impetus. I was let go of my accounting role at a firm and one day I was frustrated with the park in my neighborhood being dirty. So I just got my closest friends and brothers together to start cleaning up the neighborhood every two weeks. From there we just kept it going, seeing that we had had success with it.
Do you have any sort of background in organizing like this?
No. I don’t have a background in organizing. My mother always said I was an organized person and that I needed to utilize my gifts and I just didn’t want to listen to her until I didn’t have a choice.
During that first cleanup, what types of things were you finding?
It was mainly plastic. At the time it was all just very surface stuff. Nothing heavy, no dumping, no needles. Just plastic: cups, chip bags, blunt wrappers, condom wrappers.
How did you go from that first cleanup to these bigger, more widespread cleanups?
It was community acceptance, little by little. It started out as just me and my brothers. Then other people started seeing on Instagram and want[ed] to tap in. So we started organizing them regularly for everyone to participate. From there it continued to grow. We started identifying different resources—tools, storage, networking, promotion, marketing, contacts with politicians and public officials, relationships with the Department of Sanitation so they come pick up our bags of trash at the end of events—that could help us make it more effective. It’s been a slow, steady, organic growth. We never went outside of our core focus of what we enjoy doing. Our flagship action has always been the cleanup. We don’t try to step outside our lane and get fancy with it. We do what we know how to do at a very high level and it’s very impactful. We’re bringing people together, cleaning up our streets, getting the message out to our public officials and now, allocating resources to be able to do this on a bigger, more effective scale.
What are the projects you are currently working on?
The Bundy Road Project. We’ve been working on that for a year. The Bundy Road community cleanup was a huge spark for the organization. From there, we led the Claiborne Corridor Underpass event where we extracted over 700 needles from under the bridge. We did the Martin Luther King community cleanup on South Derbigny. We cleaned up a totally illegal dumpsite cesspool where there were needles in front of the school. It was ridiculous. That was a huge effort. There are so many other ones in different neighborhoods where different neighborhood organizations have asked us to come out. We’re supporters of Lincoln Beach, we go out pretty regularly and participate in the revitalization and restoration of [the beach].
Bundy Road is what our focus is right now and we kind of let the community lead the other events. If they find something, once they identify it and point us towards it, we will take an honest look at it. Ultimately our focus is to transform New Orleans into the cleanest city in America by 2030 so there’s a lot of work to do. But we’re gonna let the community lead us instead of leading the community.
What motivates you to continue doing this work?
Watching everybody working together, knowing that our city is becoming cleaner. It’s just fun. What I think is so beautiful about COC events is that everybody comes out. It’s not just public officials, it’s not just residents, it’s everybody. Across social classes, racial classes, gender classes, everybody is able to come out and unify behind a message of cleaning up our community which impacts all of us.
What are you most excited about going forward?
Seeing everybody come out in New Orleans on Saturday mornings 10 years from now, 20 years from now. And just like we line up under the bridge for second lines and we get ready for Mardi Gras season, we all commune under the tree and on neutral grounds every Saturday morning like it’s a regular thing. It’ll just be a part of life in New Orleans.
SAGE MICHAEL PELLET
What, on a personal level, led you to want to be involved in work like this?
Self-accountability for our community. We have this mentality of trash and trash collection and trash dumping and throwing trash out the window. I think that we can care for our communities much better. I believe if people see a beautiful place, they’re going to want to hold it as beautiful and not trash it.
Can you explain the concept behind the name?
We have culture in New Orleans: culture of music, culture of food, and we developed our messaging as Culture of Cleanliness. Every initiative has its own personality as we do in New Orleans. It’s consistency and commitment and involvement. We clean up our streets. We do this in communities that receive blight and dumping from neglectful property owners, from natural disasters, illegal dumping from the tire industry. Beautifying and revitalizing communities is something everyone can do and that breaks all divisions and all border lines.
How are your efforts driven by community-based solutions?
This is all about what we can do for ourselves, do for our community. Environmental injustice is all around us. We gotta take care of ourselves, our bodies, and this environment. If we don’t take care of the environment, then we won’t have a future. So what can we do? We can pick up a bag, we can pick up a piece of trash—that’s collective work. That’s how you get it done. We are all united together in this circle. We have no leaders. We have collective work together. Together we work in unison.
How did you get involved with COC?
I was already here as a grad student from UC Santa Cruz studying waste and environmental racism. Six months after getting here I got a job with the City so now I work with the Stormwater and Green Infrastructure Department. I support where I can. I write grants. I can help access resources to go back into the nonprofit and community space to be leveraged for events and awareness and public outreach.
Have you seen any similarities between the problems our communities here are facing compared to somewhere like California where you are from originally?
I think it’s a total global issue. Here in the States, there is a lot of overlap because what happens is there are types of brands that you see that target African American communities. There’s a concept called liquor lining, so where there’s a lot of convenience stores and liquor stores, you’ll see the waste of these sorts of products across the country. The brand names of these might change but their corporate owners are pretty much the same. There’s a lot more waste reduction and strategy in California and you have bottle bills where people can earn money by returning bottles, as opposed to here where everything goes into one black can, the landfill can, and it’s this out-of-sight out-of-mind thing. But the reality is that it’s everywhere because it’s coming from every single transaction.
What do you see as the next steps, both for the organization and for environmental organizing as a whole?
I think COVID gave the plastic industry a new windfall because we were all separated and a lot of people had to rely on single use again. Across the country there were a lot of different cities beginning to implement bans on plastic bags, Styrofoam, lids, all sorts of things. And then COVID gave them a new reason to use it again to keep everything sanitized. I would love to put reuse in the foreground and not recycling. We know the plastic industry funded recycling in the ‘90s when they were being targeted by activists. But to this day, only 5 to 6% ever gets recycled. Now they’re trying to invent this new advanced recycling but there are way too many different types of plastic for the average consumer to sort.
On an ancestral level, if we think about what our grandparents did, it’s a no-brainer. My mom and grandmother would refill their old milk jars and it’s the same jar—you wash it, you take it back and it gets reused over and over again. And if it’s made with glass, it’s not leaching those chemicals back into our water. If it breaks, glass can get broken back down into sand and other things. Build policy incentives that allow people to recuperate their expenses for doing a sustainable thing. If you’re going to return this aluminum can, you should get 5 or 10 cents. Doing the sustainable thing is not always convenient when we live in a world of mass consumerism, so incentivizing people to do that can build a culture en masse, be more inclusive, and hopefully be equitable.
When you were speaking [to the group] earlier you made a point about how our relationship to that which we throw away can be extrapolated to how we treat each other—
The way we have started to treat the Earth itself as void of any sort of spiritual essence, it’s this commodity that we can extract from, pollute, dump on, treat like a trash receptacle with all of our pollution—that expands into all these other issues. Now we can take something sacred and turn it into a commodity that we sell; and as soon as it loses its value to us, it becomes a liability in terms of pollution.
I think New Orleans is a pivotal city in terms of its international influence, its position at the base of the Mississippi River. It’s a place that a lot of outsiders come to and think they can treat it like a one-night stand to pollute and throw things on the ground for Mardi Gras and leave. And the local community has to deal with those consequences. There’s a lot of beautiful stuff that comes out of the tourist economy, but I think one of the side effects is the pollution that people feel like is someone else’s problem. If that is the ethos, it enables a culture where we can just throw things on the street. I think there is a psychological connection between our environment and how we see ourselves. If we constantly see a polluted environment, it influences how we think. If you’re walking outside and seeing trash everywhere, it starts to affect your health and well-being.
What you throw away ends up actually leaching toxins to somebody and those toxins are contributing to premature death. If somebody is living next to a place where all the trash in the the parish is being sent and that waste is leaching into the waters, it can lead to increased cancer rates, increased asthma rates depending on what the type of pollution is, it can change your hormones which are responsible for all different types of regulation of our bodily rhythms. This is us throwing ourselves, or throwing a community that resembles us, away.
Can you tell me a little bit about what your role in COC is?
About a year ago, Gregory put a social media post out calling for passionate people of New Orleans to come together. They had a cleanup in New Orleans East. I didn’t even tell them I was coming, I just showed up with a ton of equipment that I use for recycling in New Orleans, like a Bobcat and somewhat heavy machinery. In an hour we were able to make a huge amount of movement and right then and there we realized that our visions are very aligned: Let’s respect the Earth, respect our resources, and respect each other in our actions.
I have a private company called REALCYCLE that is reimagining recycling for the city of New Orleans. I am also the sustainability coordinator at Jazz Fest. I came in and told them that if I am a part of this, we are going to do real recycling. We were able to build this incredible, beautiful program and I can confidently say we actually recycled and proved it is possible at a very large scale.
What kind of background do you have that led you to organizing and community work like this?
Honestly, I wasn’t extremely involved in the community. I was just part of my local community through my father and the men’s club and the church organization and the parish fair. I loved those community events and saw what community is able to do on that level. But really during COVID, when there wasn’t a community and everything was on social media, seeing people doing the work that I knew I wanted to do and had always wanted to do motivated me. We know the issues that are here but if we can come together collectively, we can potentially help each other with the resources we have that are currently being wasted and going in the trash. We’re a city known for food waste. We can turn this food waste into nutrient-dense material to then put into these neutral grounds so when it rains, the water goes into the soil even deeper. By naturally capturing carbon in the soil, we can sequester carbon for hundreds of years. We can also have nutrient-dense material to donate to urban farms and even give to homeowners to use in their gardens to grow food off of our waste. That’s what this is really about: When we respect that waste, we can create this whole new culture of reconnecting to each other through something that touches every one of our lives.
What would you say to people who have no experience in this type of work but want to get involved? What do you think are good first steps aside from coming out to an event like this?
For the longest time I thought that one person couldn’t make a difference. Small little wins in your daily life can be easily achieved and then you feel like you are more closely connected to the potential to make a cleaner planet and rebuild this world. Think about where your waste really goes and start having conversations about what you are producing in terms of waste. And come out to these events. There are a number of these, so come out and start networking. There are so many like-minded people of all different cultures coming together, which represents New Orleans so well. Don’t be scared to show up.
Photos by Katie Sikora