Cleaning up your community: How to deal with the accumulation of junk

Accumulated junk on properties can adversely affect the health, safety and property values in a community. Using a multi-faceted approach to dealing with junk can bring people together to improve the quality of life in their community.

For many the arrival of spring brings “spring cleaning” -- household projects such as tidying up the yard, attic, basement or garage. These projects often involve the removal and disposal of many unsightly and even potentially dangerous materials. Unfortunately, too often these items are allowed to accumulate in yards. Junk has become such a nuisance in rural Michigan communities that it has been identified as one of the top problems in many recent public surveys. In Newaygo County, for example, several community surveys have consistently identified junk as a primary concern by many residents and local officials.

Accumulated junk is more than a mere annoyance, it can pose serious hazards for a community. Junk is not only visually repulsive, it can also harbor vermin such as rats and provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes, both of which can carry disease. Leached toxic chemicals, oils and paints into the ground can cause pollution and damage groundwater (the source of many rural Michigander’s drinking water) and even make it into our lakes and streams. These problems can also negatively affect neighboring property values.

Local officials can address junk at the township, city, and village level (under the auspices of providing for the health, safety and welfare of its residents) by adopting a junk ordinance that prohibits its build-up and requires the removal of existing junk. These ordinances also provide for ordinance enforcement through citation and fines.

Michigan State University Extension provides a guide entitled How to Deal with Accumulated Junk Problems that includes a sample junk ordinance for communities looking to address and regulate the accumulation of junk. While this method can be effective by relying on complaints and policing to identify existing problem properties, additional proactive steps can also be taken to clean up communities.

In recent years, several innovative communities have taken a comprehensive and coordinated “carrot-and-stick” approach to address accumulated junk. In addition to using the “stick” of ordinance adoption and enforcement, local communities offer “carrots” to their residents through local programs. For example, many cities and townships now offer clean-up days where residents can bring in junk (including large items such as appliances and furniture) to transfer stations free-of-charge. In addition, many municipalities have partnered with local recycling programs to offer drop-off locations where residents can bring cardboard, plastic, glass and metal.

You can do your part as well. In addition to participating in clean-up days and recycling programs, you can also invite others who could benefit from taking part in these programs. Keep an eye out for special collections in your community. There are often programs that will take specialized items such as tires, batteries and electronics.

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