When sophomore Olivia O’Keefe skillfully painted the ocean, several sea creatures and soda bottles draining into the water as part of her design over a storm drain on Pondfield Avenue, she had a simple, yet powerful message. She aimed to raise awareness about how litter in the streets connects to the Bronx River.
O’Keefe, who worked for 11 hours over the course of two days to complete her art, was the winner of a storm drain art competition, which was created by a group of Bronxville High School students in conjunction with the Village of Bronxville.
“With my design I wanted to remind everyone that our drains feed rivers, rivers feed oceans and our oceans feed us,” said O’Keefe, who entered the competition with hopes of leaving a positive impact in her community. “Since the message is to prevent littering, I added bottles leaking into the water as an example of waste. I hope that by creating an image that shows exactly what is happening and who and what it is affecting, I can change people’s perspective on littering.”
Sophomore Kelly Weild – a member of the Bronx River Research course at the high school and one of the organizers of the storm drain art competition – said she and her classmates have been conducting research on litter in the village. With help from the Bronx River Alliance, they completed trash surveys on Palmer Avenue and Parkway Road to categorize and tally litter. Based on the data they collected, Weild said they concluded that tobacco products were the No. 1 source of litter in Bronxville. Then, they hypothesized that floatable litter was being transmitted into storm drains by natural causes, such as rain and wind, and eventually, it was discharged to the river.
“To bring awareness to this issue, we contacted the Village of Bronxville to initiate reforms,” Weild said. “We provided the village with a map of hotspots of litter and cigarette butts so that the village could strategically buy and place trash cans in town. Additionally, we proposed hosting a storm drain art competition to bring attention to the issue of litter in the town.”
When the students presented their idea to the board of trustees, they gained their approval to hold the contest. Jim Palmer, Bronxville’s village administrator, said he was impressed with the stormwater educational program, undertaken by teacher Justine McClellan and her students, that led to creation of the artwork.
“Education and outreach to the community is a critical component of the village’s municipal storm sewer system program, and this joint effort between the village and school is a model for how communities can be educated on the importance of understanding what enters our waterways and how it gets there,” he said.
Weild said she will continue researching the impact of litter in Bronxville next year and hopes the storm drain art competition inspires other municipalities to host their own competition.
“This project is exactly what we mean when we say we are developing engaged citizens,” Principal Ann Meyer said. “Our students researched a problem, trash in the Bronx River, developed potential causes and found a way to act to address the issue. I could not be more proud to see these citizen scientists make a difference in our local community.”