Waste Not, Want Not
Various Locations in Aurora, Colo
By Dawn Klingensmith
Necessity isn't always the mother of invention. Sometimes it's revulsion.
Bill Airy was strolling through a Denver park when he saw a dog owner leave behind his pooch's poo, smack-dab in the middle of the sidewalk. "I was shocked and disgusted," Airy said, especially since there was a baggie dispenser nearby, which Airy marched up to intending to do the dog owner's dirty work.
What he found was a dispenser that no longer contained bags but instead had become a receptacle for dog waste. It was clear—and not necessarily surprising—that due to ongoing parks department budget constraints, "it was not a priority to manage the little bag stations," Airy said.
That's when he got the idea to form a private company to take over the responsibility. However, he knew he could never persuade cash-strapped parks departments to outsource the job, adding another line item to the budget. "So the idea," he said, "was to provide the service for free."
Airy came up with Poo Free Parks, an eco-friendly pet waste program funded by sponsorships. This public-private partnership program—reportedly the first of its kind in the nation—is aimed at reducing the negative impacts of pet waste and plastic on the environment, using eco-friendly materials and operations. The program is delivered to local communities at no cost to municipalities or taxpayers.
The entire program is completely paid for by sponsors, who are recognized for their support on signage attached to each baggie dispenser. Sponsors include Petco and Banfield Pet Hospitals on down to local car dealerships and individuals.
The program successfully rids parks of pet waste by attacking the problem from two angles: through public education, and through the consistent and reliable supply of tools necessary to "doo the right thing," according to Poo Free Parks' Web site.
All signs have educational information about pet owners' responsibility to pick up after their pets and about the environmental risks of leaving behind dog waste. "It's not fertilizer. It's a water contaminant if you leave it behind," Airy said.
In addition, each 12-by-18-inch sign includes the logo and messaging of the sponsoring party.
The South Suburban Parks and Recreation District near Denver became the first participant in 2010. The program has since grown to include 675 stations in some 150 parks in the greater Denver and Chicago areas as well as Southern California and Portland, Ore., with expansion planned to other states.
In October 2011, Aurora, which is Colorado's third largest city, joined the roster of communities taking advantage of the Poo Free Parks program, which is expected to save the city up to $20,000 annually.
However, "You can't really put a price on having a better appearance and better public service" in the park system, said Sherri-Jo Stowell, marketing specialist for Aurora's Parks, Recreation and Open Space department . "We want to provide good customer service to our park users. And we consider ourselves good environmental stewards."
Her sentiments are echoed as far as the Midwest. "The program fits the district's ongoing mission to protect and improve the natural environment," writes Rich Grodsky, executive director for the Elmhurst Park District in Illinois, in a testimonial. "It helps keep our parks clean and provides an added convenience for park users and their pets, while providing a cost savings to the district and creating jobs in the community."
The program includes the installation, supply and upkeep of pet waste bag dispensers made from 100 percent recyclable aluminum, filled with 100 percent biodegradable bags designed to naturally deteriorate within 18 months. (Regular polyethylene bags take 1,000 years to break down.) The dog waste dispensers are maintained weekly by crews driving hybrid vehicles.
"I can't say enough good things about the service and products they offer us," said Stowell, adding that it frees up staff for other tasks. "We're seeing remarkable changes in our staff's ability to handle other problems."
Airy attributes the program's success to two key elements: convenience and consistency. The program's crews put up dispensers at all park entrances, so dog walkers can grab one on their way into the park. Crews then make certain those dispensers are always stocked so park users "can count on the bags being there," Airy said.
The company even developed "service accountability" protocols to make sure proper maintenance is performed. Every week, crews take pictures of the stations and upload them to a Web site, along with data such as the number of bags used and dollars saved. In addition, a GPS-based app generates an e-mail when all the stations under contract have been serviced.
"It's such a cool system. It shows park managers we're doing our job," Airy said. "They don't even have to leave their desk to know we're keeping up our end of the bargain."
According to program data, more than 1.2 million biodegradable bags have been used at participating parks, which equates to over 160,000 pounds or 80 tons of pet waste that have been collected by dog owners using earth-friendly supplies made in the United States.
As word spreads, business is picking up. But Airy was surprised in the beginning that his concept—free poo abatement—wasn't an easy sell: "When I first came up with this concept, I thought, for the park systems, this was going to be a no-brainer. But it's been the opposite. The park systems are the hardest to convince" compared with sponsors.
Sweetening the pot, "It's our job to go out and get a sponsor. They don't need to worry about it," Airy said.
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