It’s likely you’ve seen them roadside - groups of trash collectors in high-visibility vests, putting waste into bags and (literally) doing the dirty work to keep our city clean. Keep Knoxville Beautiful has a simple mission, but it takes teamwork to accomplish each goal.
“We promote a cleaner, greener, more beautiful Knoxville. We work for litter eradication, host recycling events, do education in the school system, presentations with local businesses, and beautification works, like painting murals,” says Executive Director Alanna McKissack. “We want people to be excited.”
Keep Knoxville Beautiful was founded in 1978 by the Chamber, the City, and other Knoxville government officials to prepare the city for the 1982 World’s Fair. (It was a scruffy city then, though not in the endearing way it is now.) Though the young organization didn’t have official staff members, it had a large board of directors and widespread community support. As an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, the group had a set of guidelines and a clear mission, and support throughout the 1980s was significant.
“People were on board for this,” says Alanna. “Johnny Majors was the face of Keep Knoxville Beautiful for a while. People were invested and interested in making this city beautiful. We were the first to get a website when the internet came around.”
Today, Keep Knoxville Beautiful has a small staff with a big mission, and it has more to accomplish than collecting litter.
“We do a litter survey every year - a visible scoring of roads to see where the litter is,” says Alanna. “One-to-four scale on each row, based on sections and averaged for industrial areas and suburban. We are picking it up, but it’s also about the behavior change, getting people to change their mentality. People don’t want to live or shop in areas that are littered.”
Alanna’s passion for the environment brought the Georgia native to Knoxville in 2011 to study Ecology at the University of Tennessee. After graduating in 2015, she joined AmeriCorps and connected with the Community Action Committee (CAC), a local public agency that serves Knox County’s “low-to-moderate-income families, the unemployed and underemployed, persons with disabilities, and other individuals with a special need for services.”
The CAC helps place people in community outreach programs, and they were looking for someone with a science background to serve as the program director for Keep Knoxville Beautiful. Alanna held that position for a year and then went on to take a job in Blount County. By 2018, she was back at Keep Knoxville Beautiful as its director.
“I was always interested in science and had dreams of becoming a marine biologist, but when it came to choosing a school, Tennessee was far enough away that I could go away to college and still come go home. I chose to study water ecology, which is obviously more about the river here,” she says. “I don’t necessarily work in that realm but what I’ve learned has been helping educate people about how litter affects our rivers and wildlife.”
The Tennessee River is one of the most polluted rivers for microplastics, which is why the organization often partners with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, another affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, to clean up creeks and streets nearby water.
“We do more creeks than the river because - you have to think - how did it get there? Littering starts in the streets and creeks,” says Alanna. “We do an Adopt the Road program where we provide the supplies, safety equipment, and everything you need.”
Safety supplies are key and for various reasons. In addition to broken glass and distracted drivers, sometimes volunteers stumble upon hazardous waste or other materials not suitable for pick-up. Several years ago, there was a litter pick-up in North Knoxville and a volunteer came upon an inactive mobile meth lab. The Knoxville Police Department was called to check the scene and dispose of the materials properly.
“We only want volunteers to pick up what they recognize,” says Alanna. “If you can’t identify it, don’t touch it.”
The good news is that anyone can volunteer - businesses, churches, students. Groups can organize their own clean-up date and time, and if they don’t have an area in mind already, Keep Knoxville Beautiful can suggest one. In addition to garbage bags, gloves, and other supplies, they provide a safety manual and report sheet. They even get instructions on where to dump the garbage once it’s collected.
“The feedback from our litter pick-ups is so positive because people can see the effects they’re having. We’re a small organization, so we can’t do it ourselves. We rely heavily on the community,” says Alanna. “It’s not a commitment either. You can try it and if you don’t like it, we won’t hunt you down and make you keep volunteering.”
In 2018, nearly 3,000 volunteers accomplished 116 cleanups, planted more than 4,000 plants and flowers, and reached 2,800 students through educational outreach. Last year, clean-up numbers were up to 256, with more than 65,000 lbs. of litter collected by 3,400 volunteers. They accomplished 11 beautification projects, and 17 local events were made greener with recycling options. Whether through an organized litter pick-up or when walking around the community, Alanna says the best thing anyone can do is pick up garbage when they see it. Every little bit helps.
“Take part. We are the people who can change Knoxville and make it better,” she says. “I won’t be the one who changes everyone’s behaviors, but if we all take part, we can do it.”