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One man, many trash cans: Cottage Grove worker keeps parks clean

Gary Kjellberg dumps one of the over 200 garbage cans located in Cottage Grove's local parks. Bulletin photo by Elena Christensen

Cottage Grove's city parks have over 200 garbage cans. Gary Kjellberg knows that because he empties them all -- and tallies what people toss.

In just over two months, Kjellberg, a city public works employee, has collected more than 11 tons of trash from Cottage Grove parks.

A seasonal employee and the only worker devoted to clearing garbage from parks, Kjellberg keeps track of what is thrown away legally and illegally.

"Just last Monday, I probably picked up one ton of garbage," he said during a recent route.

It is ideal for any city to have evidence their local parks and trails are being used, Kjellberg said. Garbage is a good indicator, but it would preferably be found in trash cans, as opposed to on the ground.

Kjellberg loads garbage into a city truck, but often has to pick up trash in the parking lots by hand. Hamlet Park and Oakwood Park have particular problems with parking lot litter. He suggested the cause could be the crowds at Hamlet's skate park and Oakwood's disc golf course.

Another area of concern is Grey Cloud Island. When trash is left on the riverbanks, it is often picked up by the river and pollutes the water supply. There are four trash barrels along the river, but the riverbank and parking areas are still often littered with garbage, Kjellberg said.

Illegal dumping in park trash cans also is a problem. Kjellberg says he has found a number of illegal items in the cans, such as used oil, tires, a metal box spring, broken glass windows, metal car parts and a small refrigerator. These items cannot be picked up by the city garbage trucks so Public Works employees have to pick up these items individually, Kjellberg said. They must then dispose of them properly on the taxpayers' dollar.

Kjellberg, who is in his first year cleaning parks, said this is a problem, so he keeps track to show others how significant it really is. A part-time employee, he follows a similar route each week, stopping at larger parks more frequently and the smaller parks when necessary.

Makes a difference

Cottage Grove Parks Foreman Greg Niles said Kjellberg has developed a route system that ensures all parks are cleaned and deserves credit for the parks' neat appearance.

"He does a great job," Niles said. "He gets out and picks up the trash that's laying around. I think it's made a big difference in keeping the parks clean."

That will attract more users, Niles added: "If it's a clean park, there's going to be a lot more people using them."

Kjellberg expressed concerns that some people don't care about the city's parks and other people who might want to use them. People dispose of hazardous and illegal waste in the garbage cans, and even knock over portable toilets. One mysterious resident double-bags grass clippings and leaves multiple bags at different parks. Kjellberg said he wished the person would use the city compost site because it's illegal to leave yard waste in parks.

Kjellberg has an unusual job that many people don't think of when throwing away garbage in the city parks.

"I'm retired, but it's a good summer gig," he said. "I have a woodshop in my backyard, so it's a little extra money to buy toys for that."