Street sweeping is a dirty job. Just ask Rex Davis. He works for Seattle Public Utilities, and he’s one of several people assigned to analyze the grime picked up by Seattle’s street sweepers.
What he sees is not pretty. According to a June 2015 Seattle Weekly article, when it’s his turn, Davis digs through piles of putrid trash. Davis and his colleagues perform this duty every two weeks so they’ll know exactly what street sweepers collect-and how much.
The numbers are staggering. In a single year, Seattle’s street-swept garbage mass contains around 130 tons of water pollutants. But thanks to street sweepers, those pollutants never get the chance to actually contaminate the natural waterways around Seattle.
Although street sweeping is a dirty job, someone has to do it. The EPA recommends street sweeping as a best practice cities should engage in to minimize stormwater pollutant runoff. Consequently, many municipal governments allocate money to this public service every year.
In this blog, we’ll examine why the EPA encourages street sweeping and why city governments take that mandate to heart. We’ll also look at whether street sweeping delivers what it promises: does it actually protect natural waterways from pollution?
The EPA and Street Sweeping
On its website, the EPA names several purposes of street sweeping. These purposes include keeping city roadways beautiful and clean, controlling dust, and decreasing pollution.
To ensure local street-sweeping programs accomplish these purposes, the EPA also makes recommendations for effective municipal street sweeping:
- Schedules. Cities should have a schedule to ensure effective street sweeping. The schedule should be flexible to account for weather, climate, and local events that increase street garbage.
- Record keeping. Cities should track how many miles of road they sweep and how much waste they collect. These records help them evaluate their efforts and plan for the future.
- Testing and disposal. Cities should test waste sample for pollutants, carcinogens, and other harmful materials so they can dispose of them safely.
- Reuse. Some collected street-sweeping waste can be reused elsewhere, as long as it is free from materials that could harm local water supplies.
- Parking policies. Cities should establish parking policies to ensure street sweepers can capture as much pollution and trash as possible. Cities should inform the public about these parking policies.
- Equipment maintenance. Cities should keep street sweeping equipment in good condition if they maintain their own fleet. Some cities choose to hire private street sweeping companies to minimize equipment maintenance costs.
The EPA notes that when cities follow these practices, street sweeping is an effective way to keep pollutants out of stormwater runoff and natural waterways. In fact, modern street sweepers often keep water- protection costs low, particularly in urban areas with lots of paved surfaces.
Local Governments and Street Sweeping
Local governments in many cities nationwide take the EPA’s guidelines on street sweeping seriously and put them into practice. In Florida, for example, many city government websites contain pages about street sweeping services. Those pages educate citizens on why street sweeping matters and report on the city’s efforts. The pages also frequently contain handy street sweeping schedules or parking policies.
State governments also make rules and recommendations about street sweeping. For instance, the state government might mandate how cities dispose of waste collected during street sweeping. Those policies ensure that pollutants make it to the correct landfills and stay permanently out of water supplies.
In some states, several local governments band together in efforts to keep stormwater runoff as clear of pollution as possible. One organization formed for that purpose is the Florida Stormwater Association. Its members include many local governments, a few private firms, and some academic institutions. Groups like FSA work to ensure that money spent on street sweeping and related practices is being used wisely.
Street Sweeping and Pollution-Free Waterways
Let’s return now to Rex Davis and Seattle’s piles of street-sweeper garbage. Davis and others who work with him analyze this trash as part of research efforts approved by the EPA. The EPA wanted better data on how effective street sweeping is.
Four years into the study, Seattle’s data show positive results. The method proves to be not only effective but also cost-effective. Seattle reports that it costs only about $4.80 per pound to keep pollutants out of the waterways with street sweeping. Other methods for accomplishing the same objective can cost $8 to $50 per pound.
Based on those numbers, Seattle plans to sweep twice as many miles of its streets. City officials hopes these extra street-sweeping efforts will keep 140 tons of pollution out of water each year.
Street Sweeping and You
No matter where you live in the United States, you can do your part to ensure street sweepers in your area work effectively. Start by not littering and never throwing trash or contaminants down storm drains.
Also, make street sweeping an easy task for your local sweepers. Check your city’s website for a streetsweeping schedule, and keep your cars and trash cans off the street on sweeping days. Your efforts will ensure that the money your city spends on street sweeping is well spent-it will keep pollutants out of the waterways near you.