Q&A with Kanika Greenlee, Executive Director of the Keep Atlanta Beautiful Commission
Have you ever imagined a world without litter? We spoke with Kanika about her passion for recycling, the latest waste technology, and what it would mean for her job to be obsolete.
You first started working for the Keep Georgia Beautiful Foundation in 2002, and have since transitioned to your current role at the Keep Atlanta Beautiful Commission. What made you choose this line of work?
I’m not sure if I chose this field or this field chose me. I started my career in retail management, but that was a quick pass to burnout for me, and not something I was passionate about. My aunt was on the board of Keep Atlanta Beautiful at the time, and Lynn Cobb, the former director of the Keep Georgia Beautiful Foundation, mentioned to her that they were looking for a program assistant. My aunt knew I was ready to transition careers and told me to apply. She knew I liked nature and the outdoors, and was passionate about helping people. The rest is history, as they say.
What made me stay is the meaningful work. I feel like every day I make a difference—sometimes they’re small, but those moments add up to larger things. For example, it always warms my heart to see somebody pick trash up, or hold it in their hand until they get to a trash can. In terms of recycling, last July we rolled out a tool on our website called the Waste Wizard, which essentially helps people discover what goes where, whether that’s the curbside, a place for harder to recycle items like CHaRM, or their trash bin. Seeing the amount of searches and hits it’s received, or even having residents tell me they enjoy using it, has been helpful. You might think the small little tools and tweaks don’t make a big impact, but they really do once you add them up over thousands of people.
We also part of a great network. I love that you don’t have to always create new projects or programs because of the tools and resources Keep America Beautiful provides. They’re basically a family to pull on for your needs. That drew me in; I wanted to be a part of it and grow with it. I may have started off working for Georgia, but I’m a native Atlantan, born and raised, so my current role is a culmination of everything I learned on the state level to bring home.
Tell us more about the work the Keep Atlanta Beautiful Commission is doing this year.
This summer, we’re rolling out our “Feet on the Street” recycling education campaign citywide. We had a successful pilot program in 2018 that yielded great results: a 62% decrease in our number one contaminant, plastic bags; a 57% decrease in overall contamination; and a 27% increase in capturing more recyclables. We were fortunate enough to receive a grant from Coca-Cola to be able to reach all Atlanta residents: we’ll be touching them at least four times with a recycling audit to make sure we’re decreasing contamination and increasing participation even further, and I’m really excited about that.
We’re also continuing our work with tire maintenance. We have seen a 20% decrease in the amount of flat tires collected from roadsides, which is huge for us, and I think in part due to the programs we have in place. We do scrap tire events twice a year—we collected 12,000 tires in the course of six weeks last spring, and about 5,000 in the fall—and our residents know they have a place to take an unlimited amount of tires now. We also partner with the CHaRM center to allow residents to take tires there year-round, and we’re taking full advantage of a local government reimbursement grant that the EPD offers—they essentially reimburse the city for every tire we collect.
What would you define as some of the most rewarding moments of your career thus far?
I want to say the pilot project and this grant that we’re about to launch, but I’ll add to that the waste technology we’ve been able to implement for such programs. For “Feet on the Street” we use an app powered by Rubicon, and through that we’re able to load routes and get real-time data and information—daily, weekly, and monthly. That really helps us target our outreach and education messages. Recycling audits aren’t new, but the tech behind it certainly is, and that has really been a game changer for us.
Another impactful project we’ve been involved in is an initiative called Aglanta. The Keep Atlanta Beautiful Commission is a government affiliate, and we’re housed in the city’s public works department. They had some vacant lots they weren’t utilizing, and we were able to partner with the sustainability team in the mayor’s office to donate them to become community gardens. Now, people who live in food deserts (urban areas in which it is difficult to buy affordable or high quality fresh food) have access to fruits and vegetables that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
That sounds amazing. What do you look forward to in the future? What further impact do you hope to see in Atlanta?
In the future I hope to be out of a job! That’s the ultimate goal, at least in terms of litter reduction and abatement. Of course, we’ll always have some litter, because some of it is unintentional, but I’d really like my job to be obsolete in 25 years. In terms of recycling, I’d love to see the tech grow even more and see us continue to incorporate it into our work. As we move into this digital age, it’s only going to get better.
Any advice for people looking to make their communities cleaner, greener, or more beautiful?
I’d say that the best advice is to focus on one or two things, and do them really well. Then you can build upon that. Just look at the Keep America Beautiful pillars (litter reduction, recycling, and beautification) and pick one or two of those that you can do really well in your community. That choice will be dependent on your budget, size, and community needs—every place is different—but if you can focus on those you can have a greater impact.