One hot summer afternoon, shortly after Alyssandra Grizenko and her husband Chris Sullivan moved from Golden, Colorado, to Chattanooga, the couple drove to Chickamauga Lake. They had heard about a rope swing just off Lake Resort Drive.
When they arrived, they found the beach trashed with beer cans, dirty diapers, cigarette butts and Cheetos bags.
"I had to tiptoe around the litter. It wasn't just disgusting, it was a health hazard," says Grizenko, 27, who studied public health, focusing on the study of diseases, at the University of Colorado – Denver. "Between water exposure and heat exposure, it doesn't take long for bacteria to start breeding."
For instance, she says broken glass increases the risk of tetanus. Feces leads to gastroenteritis, an infection that causes vomiting and diarrhea. Litter that collects water breeds mosquitoes. Already this year, 19 human cases of the mosquito-transmitted West Nile virus have been confirmed in Tennessee, Grizenko says, up from just six cases in 2016.
Intellectually, litter concerns her because of her background. But emotionally, it is troubling because the outdoors have always been her playground.
Grizenko grew up atop Lookout Mountain in Colorado, 7,000 feet above sea level. She was an only child and says she preferred to play alone outside, rather than join sports teams. As a teenager, she attended a creative arts high school where she majored in opera singing, almost always practicing outside.
Yet still, competing against others never appealed to her, which is why she ultimately chose not to pursue a singing career.
"I didn't want to spend the rest of my life auditioning," she says.
Then, in her 20s, Grizenko discovered rock climbing, an activity that allowed her to be outside and challenged her to reach new heights with her goal-setting.
"[Climbing] had a huge impact on my overall character, because it has never stopped challenging me. In climbing, the only person I have to compete against is myself, and I think that allows me to push my limits while always wanting to achieve more in the sport," she says.
Over the years, rock climbing has become a passion that she and her husband nurture together, traveling across North America — including an auspicious trip to the Scenic City — to climb. In 2016, when her husband's company, West Star Aviation, created a division in Chattanooga and asked him to relocate, Grizenko says the decision was a no-brainer.
"Lots of people say that Colorado has the best climbing, but I tend to disagree. I think Chattanooga's is better," Grizenko says.
However, following that first trip to Chickamauga Lake, Grizenko learned that not everything in Tennessee is better. The state of Colorado, she says, spends substantially more money on litter prevention than Tennessee.
"Colorado gets so much revenue from tourism, they have to have money in keeping it clean," she says.
The problem with litter is not just the garbage itself, but the mentality that surrounds it.
"Litter begets litter," Grizenko says. "You see litter and you're like, 'Oh, everybody's doing it.' It's a vicious cycle."
After a summer of tiptoeing around garbage in her new home city, she decided to do something about it. She asked herself, "How can I get a 16-year-old boy to pick up litter? That was my sample — a 16-year-old boy. Because nobody wants to pick up litter, but that person really doesn't want to."
The answer, she determined, was twofold: Make it easy, and make it rewarding.
In early 2017, Grizenko outlined her initiative to clean up the area's trails, parks and open spaces. She called her project Green Steps.
Her idea was to set up easy-to-use trash stations at popular outdoor recreation spots, and then reward volunteers for picking up litter.
But those stations cost money — $250 each, to be exact. Plus, there was the cost of those incentives. Not to mention Grizenko, a full-time ESL teacher, was working countless unpaid hours to launch her recycling outreach.
In June, she started a crowdfunding page, asking for $10,000. Next, she enlisted her friend Kristin Stanton to help organize partnerships.
The community's response, Grizenko says, has been overwhelming.
In less than a year, Green Steps has raised $6,900. In June, it received a $400 anti-litter grant from the Marion County Chamber of Commerce. In addition to the Chamber, Green Steps has partnered with organizations such as the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy and Scenic Cities Beautiful Commission to help raise awareness, and has had prizes donated by Four Bridges Outfitters, Mojo Burrito, West Star Aviation and Flying Squirrel.
Today, Green Steps has set up six stations. Each station includes a trash bag dispenser, trash bin and a pencil box filled with forms.
A sign at each station invites visitors to pick up trash, then record their information: three points for each bag collected; one point for each mile walked. For every 10 points, that person earns a prize, ranging from a Clumpies ice cream treat to a Four Bridges Outfitters gift card.
Suck Creek Site #1: 6 miles up Suck Creek Road from Signal Mountain Road
Suck Creek Site #2: 5 miles up Suck Creek Road from Signal Mountain Road
Earth Fare Site: behind Earth Fare in Hixson
Paradise Site: at the end of Barker Camp Road in Soddy-Daisy
Rope Swing Site: on Lake Resort Drive in Hixson
Marion County Park Site: in Jasper
Between its six stations, Grizenko says Green Steps has collected more than 300 bags of garbage, totaling around 3,000 gallons of garbage.
"We have one guy named David — he's the superstar of Suck Creek. He brings his own garbage bags and has, like, 60 points now just from this summer," Grizenko says.
In addition to the litter stations, Green Steps also organizes community cleanups and provides educational outreach to schools.
"The wonderful thing about our program is that anyone is welcome to use it," Grizenko says. But, she adds, the focus of Green Steps' education is on low-income areas where residents may not have access to free dumping sites. "There is a gross lack of education pertaining to anti-litter practices in low [socioeconomic-status] areas."
Bacteria and viruses aside, the real risk of litter is when it becomes so mainstream a community stops seeing it, she says.
"But then when you regularly maintain an area, people notice," Grizenko says. "That's the wake-up call. People notice the litter is gone and they're suddenly like, 'Wow. This is better.'"