Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cary's Trash Lady

From the News and Observer

With notebook and trash bags, Cary woman keeps park clean

Sue Buning fills another trash bag with items that will be logged in a litter collection journal she started Sept. 9, 2009.
 
- Staff Writer
 
CARY -- Sue Buning spots her mark through the foliage and the rain. Down the hill, she hustles, rain coat flashing between the trees, trash-picking claw in hand.

Many yards into the thick, she grabs a hidden plastic bottle with a practiced thrust.
Enough time hunting trash, Buning says, and instinct takes control.

"You get a sixth sense for it, the glint of the sun off the tiniest sliver of aluminum can," she explained as she walked through Cary's Bond Park.

She collected more than 3,000 pounds of trash in one year, keeping track in a handwritten journal.

Its pages note the regular - bottles, cardboard and insulation - and the odd - strollers, fake guns, printers and an air conditioner - all hauled away with the help of the claw, sturdy bags and occasionally her 21-year-old son.

'Trash walks'

Buning, an accountant by day, is Cary's unofficial Trash Lady.
She takes "trash walks" four times a week, always staying within walking distance of her home on the edge of Bond Park.

Her litter journal is an anthropological study, a register of what we deem junk and how we dispose of it.

The wooded buffers around commercial areas and apartments often hold the largest trash troves - such as abandoned appliances - while dark park corners are filled with evidence of parties, from beer cans to condoms.

"Lots of things go on in the woods," Buning said. "That's why you have the gripper."
The health-conscious aren't innocent, either. Many joggers' water bottles end up in Buning's bags.

The log helps her decide which area to attack next and provides a sense of satisfaction. Highlights of the trash walk often make her weekly emails to friends and family.

After each walk, she records the places she worked, the number and size of the bags she filled - "two plastic grocery bags, one large bag" - and a list of peculiar trash and wildlife sightings. "One deer. 1 box turtle," reads one entry.

The official record goes back nearly two years, but Buning has reverse-littered for as long as her husband, Dave Buning, can remember.

"We would go to the beach, and she'd be taking a bag with her," said her spouse of 33 years. "She's super-organized; I'm a little on the other side."

Tidy heritage

Husband and wife grew up in Michigan towns, 10 miles apart, that weren't so different from Cary, she said. Some of her anti-litter instinct may come from a tidy bloodline, Buning figures.
"I'm of Dutch heritage, and the Dutch have this frugal, thrifty, clean (gene)," she said.

A career in income-tax accounting probably reinforced those organizational tendencies.
She started her Cary trash walks in her own backyard, which backs up onto a swath of woods and trails.  "I walked 100 feet, and my bag was full," she said.
So she went out again and again. Her job leaves her free in late winter, when bare trees, a scarcity of poison ivy and fewer snakes make the work easier, she said. She works through the summer, too, and even the peak of tax season. The trash log marks frequent outings even in the midst of tax deadlines.
Sometimes the whole family joins her, though that's rarer with her two eldest children out of the house. Steven Buning, 18, comes out once a week or so to provide muscle and entertainment.
"Sorry, guys. Printers? Not biodegradable," the massage therapy student joked to his mother as they walked one day.

Even family vacations to the beach and Colorado Springs are logged in the book. "It's kind of a habit," Sue Buning said. "You miss a couple days, and you feel guilty - you can't stand it."
Plus, litter is a renewable resource. It piles up fast, but Buning and her helpers see progress in the places they hit time and time again.

She has managed to clear much of the trash she first found in the lowlands near Cary Parkway and High House Road. And when she strolls through Bond Park with trash gripper in hand, people often stop to thank her.

"I believe it's my God-given duty," said Buning, who worships at Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church in Cary.

It's infectious, too. Her son can't jog past a can without turning around to pick it up.

Big impact

Heather Morell, the town's conservation specialist, said Buning extends the reach of the town's litter collection crews.

"It ends up being something really big," Morell said.  She is the director of Spruce, a town program that has coordinated cleanup volunteers for more than two years.

Through the program, 1,300 volunteers have collected more than 10 tons of litter and planted hundreds of trees since early 2009.

The group guides volunteers' efforts and organizes events and projects, such as additions to the composting education center. Morell may point out a place that needs care or give volunteers safety training and supplies.

"Litter collection, in general, is extremely expensive," she said. "Clearly, we couldn't accomplish what we are able to accomplish without our community volunteers."

Vital volunteers

Volunteers like Buning often service areas that town and state workers don't regularly maintain. And it doesn't matter much if few notice their handiwork.

"You're out here to preserve creation," Buning said, as she and her son lugged a day's haul from Bond Park.

Moments later, her son bounded off to grab another piece of trash for their overflowing bags.
"Steven! Stop finding stuff!" she hollered.

Back at home, it was one more entry among hundreds in the trash log. And every now and then, a piece of litter finds a more permanent home - like Buning's front stoop.

"See that angel?" she asked, pointing to a metal decoration as she arrived home. "Trash walk."

akenney@newsobserver.com or 919-460-2608

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