Meet Mrs. Clean

One Canadian’s mission to help us keep our own corners of the world litter-free.

In June 2008, Benita Grist was driving in her hometown of Mississauga when a passenger in the car ahead of her threw a disposable cup out the window. When Grist honked to express her displeasure, the passenger responded by tossing out a bag.
“It showed a total lack of respect,” says the retired Grist. “I was so upset that I almost had an accident.”

But instead of stewing, she decided to do something about it: She mounted a one-woman litter-awareness campaign. Her efforts eventually garnered support from the municipal and regional governments, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, and several retailers and area MPs .

Cities might be vigilant about picking up litter and efforts such as volunteer cleanup days may also be effective, but to Grist, these types of endeavours focus on the symptom, not the cause. “If you’re a child at home and your mom constantly picks up after you, will you continue to make a mess? Of course,” she says.

Grist, who worked as a teacher’s aide and in purchasing before retiring, took it upon herself to spread the word. She started small, chatting with her neighbours about litter—and asking them to be more conscious of any tendencies they might have to litter. Soon, she noticed local families—kids and all—picking up litter around their homes.
“I thought, That’s all it took—for me to open my mouth?” she says. “So I decided to knock on more doors.”

From cleanup costs to a community’s appeal, “litter affects all of us, even you,” Grist says. She used that tag line when going door to door in Mississauga, picking a different street every weekend.
And she didn’t stop there. She approached people on the street, in malls, even in the waiting room before getting an X-ray. Over 9½ months, Grist estimates that she spoke to more than 1,300 people.

Approaching strangers with an anti-litter message might seem odd; Grist often prefaced her appeal with something such as, “I hope you don’t think I’m crazy, but…” Yet she was buoyed by the positive response —so much so that in August 2008, she began to contact officials in various levels of government, companies and other institutions in an effort to reach a wider audience.

Officials from the City of Mississauga, Region of Peel and Ontario Ministry of Transportation all agreed to post her antilitter message on their electronic signs. Several local schools and a Home Depot outlet followed suit. “It shows what one person can do when they are passionate about something,” says Dave Gordon, manager of waste planning for the Region of Peel.
Through a local Mac’s Convenience Store, Grist managed to contact the company that produces content displayed on their in-store monitors. That led to a public service announcement about litter that ran in almost 600 Mac’s stores in Ontario from November 2008 to June 2009.

“You can see how motivated she is,” says Gareth Bond of Pinpoint Media Group, which produced the spots for Mac’s. He marvelled as, during the ad shoot, he saw Grist wander over to some teens standing nearby, talk to them about litter and remind them not to do it—“and they listened,” he says.

Mississauga South MP Paul Szabo was among a few local politicians who wrote about Grist’s efforts in their mailings to constituents. “Education is part of the solution, and she has undertaken that in her own way,” says Szabo. “I wanted to en-courage her and share her story.
“If everyone did their part, it would make for a cleaner community, with less need for service and maintenance.”

Grist continues to explore every opportunity she has to get the message out. She has approached representatives of churches, synagogues and mosques to ask them to talk to their congregations on her behalf. And she hopes to target more schools.

Her grassroots campaign may be unorthodox, but she has begun to open people’s eyes about the problem of litter. “The more we talk about it, the faster we can correct it,” she says.
And unlike many social problems, the solution for this one is pretty basic. “The phrase we used was so simple: ‘Pitch in,’” says Bond. “You can pitch your garbage in a bin—and pitch in by taking responsibility for your actions.”

This sentiment echoes what has been Grist’s mission since that June 2008 car drive: “I want people to think twice about littering,” she says. And thanks to her efforts, in Mississauga, at least, they have begun to do just that.

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