Once you know to look for cigarette butts on the street and sidewalk, you can see them everywhere, one after the other.
“They sort of jump out at you,” said Bob Greene, a volunteer with the CAT Club of Havre de Grace who spends time each day with his grabber tool and bucket, picking up pieces of litter around the city.
Greene, 72, of Havre de Grace, was out along North Washington Street Saturday morning with fellow members of the CAT Club. Volunteers with CAT — Citizens Against Trash — meet at 8:30 a.m. each Saturday at Concord Point Coffee then fan out around the city with grabbers and bright orange buckets, picking up litter wherever they find it.
Greene spotted a butt in the gutter on the opposite side of Washington Street and picked up about two more on his way over to retrieve the initial cigarette butt, plus he also grabbed a candy wrapper in the gutter.
The volunteers, wearing bright orange T-shirts, focused on the downtown area on this particular Saturday. They bid “good morning” to other people strolling through downtown on the sunny morning, getting coffee, visiting shops or recreating.
Members have worked all over the city, and gone out as far as Route 40 in some cases, according to director and founder Al Peteraf.
Peteraf, 55, is a Realtor and office manager with Integrity Real Estate in Havre de Grace. He founded the CAT Club in late 2013 after standing outside downtown with some friends one day, “lamenting” the pieces of litter that could be seen everywhere.
“It was driving me crazy,” Peteraf recalled.
He and his friends decided to meet on a regular basis to pick up trash, and the initiative has grown over the years to where multiple families, school and community groups such as Scout troops participate in the cleanups. Youths taking part in the Havre de Grace Police Department’s summer safety camp recently worked with the CAT Club on two occasions.
“Havre de Grace is a great place to pull this off, because there’s a really over-the-top volunteer spirit in this town,” Peteraf said.
People can volunteer with the CAT Club on their regular Saturday cleanups, participate in the club’s special cleanup events, adopt a block in their neighborhoods or clean up litter on their own. More information is available on the CAT Club of Havre de Grace page on Facebook.
The club is part of the nonprofit umbrella organization Community Projects of Havre de Grace. Peteraf noted that “we can offer community service hours to anybody that needs it.”
There are about 100 active CAT Club volunteers; about 10 people came out Saturday, and the organization has had up to 25 people come out on some occasions, according to Peteraf. He said the downtown district has become “nearly pristine,” and it remains so even after events such as First Fridays that draw large numbers of people because of the CAT Club’s regular cleanups. Plus, about 40 families have adopted a block through the club.
The club has received grants from organizations such as Keep Maryland Beautiful, donations from citizens and businesses and an annual allocation of about $2,500 from the city.
“It’s all added up to a lot of effort toward keeping Havre de Grace litter free,” Peteraf said.
Children have been particularly enthusiastic about picking up trash, and Peteraf hopes to work with Harford County Public Schools to integrate regular litter pickups into the physical education curriculum so children can combine cleaning the community with physical activity.
“When you work with young people, they have a real sense of good and bad right and wrong,” said CAT Club volunteer Jim Dryden.
Dryden, 72, is retired from HCPS, where he served as a principal of the former Slate Ridge Elementary School — that school merged with Highland Elementary to create North Harford Elementary School — as well as Churchville Elementary and Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston.
“An activity like this just strikes them as being right and being good, and they know that they’ll be viewed by their elders as doing something positive,” he added.
The ongoing litter issue
Peteraf noted that litter remains “an ongoing issue,” as “litterbugs are still out there.” Volunteers have picked up all manner of items such as wallets, phones, debit cards, jewelry, tiny liquor bottles — Greene said he picked up cash that he later found out was counterfeit — but cigarette butts remain a common item.
Peteraf said butts can enter the Susquehanna River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, via city storm drains. Mayor William T. Martin said Monday that cigarette butts contain the material cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that biodegrades very slowly and could get into the river if dropped on the street.
Volunteer Deb Goldman said birds can use the materials to build their nests, as well.
Goldman, a 63-year-old Havre de Grace resident, said she and her husband pick up trash when they go out for walks, in addition to her volunteering with the CAT Club. The Harford County Public Schools retiree, who worked as a special education aide at Bel Air High School. moved to the city in January. She noted that “my heart has been here for 30 years” through her work with an organic food co-op that used a local church as a place to put food into boxes for customers, as well as attending the annual community Thanksgiving dinner and regular visits to the city for walks.
“I really feel like I’ve come home in my heart; it’s beautiful,” she said of Havre de Grace.
The club recently installed receptacles on sign posts around the city designed for people to deposit their cigarette butts. The receptacles were donated by Keep Maryland Beautiful, an initiative of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, and were installed with the support of the city government and the Havre de Grace Alliance, a local economic development organization, according to Peteraf.
The receptacles came up during a Havre de Grace City Council meeting Monday evening, as the mayor announced that they had been installed.
Councilman James Ringsaker mentioned that he and his son picked up 382 butts within an hour when they recently volunteered with the CAT Club.
“We’re very happy to have these receptacles mounted throughout the City of Havre de Grace,” Mayor Martin said. “We encourage people who smoke to use them.”
He and Police Chief Teresa Walter are planning a public education campaign, and city police officers will “kindly remind” people who drop their butts that it is littering which is a civil offense.
Martin said officials will “have to take the next step” if such littering keeps up.
“We’re not out to punish people,” he said. “We just want to change people’s habits.”
Patricia Williams, a stylist at the Crazy Eights Hair Salon on North Washington, was out sweeping the sidewalk Saturday morning. The Aberdeen resident said she sees Greene outside each day, picking up trash around downtown Havre de Grace.
Williams said she thinks CAT Club volunteers “do an excellent job.”
“Wouldn’t you rather go to something that’s clean than has trash all over it?” she said.
Williams said she would like to see a similar initiative in Aberdeen; Patrick McGrady, that city’s mayor, has been promoting the Keep Aberdeen Beautiful cleanup program, based on the CAT Club, and he appears in a CAT Club promotional video.
Greene said picking up litter has been good for his physical health and gives him something of an ego boost, as “people are always coming up and thanking me for what I’m doing.”
Alex Fernando, a barista at Concord Point Coffee, joined the CAT Club last month.
“I’m really happy to be a member,” the 20-year-old Aberdeen resident said Saturday while working at the coffee shop. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something good for the community.”
Fernando said it can be difficult to find community service activities and noted that “it’s really easy to get caught up in your daily life, doing things that don’t benefit other people.” He will take a bus from Aberdeen to Havre de Grace on his days off from work to pick up litter around town.
“I like this place; I want to keep it clean,” he said.