Marty Jones empties one of the thousands of trash cans on the Summerfest grounds.
Marty Jones empties one of the thousands of trash cans on the Summerfest grounds.
Grounds crew members tend to a mess on the North End.
Grounds crew members tend to a mess on the North End.
There are thousands of these receptacles on the grounds; use them.
There are thousands of these receptacles on the grounds; use them.

Keeping a clean smile

With nearly a million people passing through the Henry W. Maier Festival Park turnstiles during Summerfest’s annual 11-day run, things are bound to get a little messy.

Beer cups, unfinished food and other assorted trash build up requiring an around-the-clock effort from nearly 200 grounds workers, all charged with the mission of keeping the Summerfest grounds clean, safe and attractive for fest-goers.

The goal is to create an atmosphere of cleanliness on the same level found at Disney World. Summerfest Maintenance Facilities Manager Henry Green says that goal, brought on in the last couple of years, has had noticeable results.

And when crowds swell on nice days with a strong lineup, the job of keeping the park clean is a tough one. Daily crowds of as many as 100,000 people can slow the efforts of the familiar blue-shirted grounds workers, who collect all trash bags by hand.

"Sometimes, on Saturday nights around 11 p.m., it can look like Mardi Gras down here," Green says. "Cups, cups, cups; it can just be a sea of cups."

Thrash is carted away every morning from Summerfest’s five trash compactors to a Waste Management landfill in Oak Creek. Those compactors are filled throughout the day by workers, who roam the grounds, filling grey push carts with full bags of trash.

They are some of the festival’s hardest-working people, says Stephanie Andersen, a Summerfest event operations manager. Especially those with the unenviable task of keeping the restrooms clean.

"I give them the most respect," Andersen said. "It’s a hard job, and they have to see everything that goes on in there. It’s not always pretty."

Still, as much as the bands and food vendors get most of the credit, it’s the cleaning teams that make the festival a success.

One of those workers is Marty Jones of Milwaukee. Pausing during a hot Saturday afternoon shift, Jones said that the hardest part of the job is making his way through the crowds.

"It’s hard to get through sometimes," Jones says. "And you get some people who are a little intoxicated, too. That makes things harder. But it’s something that needs to be done. It keeps you busy and that makes the day go by fast."

Overnights are a busy time for the crews. Five seasonal workers are on the grounds for the third shift whose job it is to clean up after the masses. In addition, 55 workers from the Milwaukee County House of Corrections are brought in with blowers to help collect the piles of cups and litter that were left behind the night before.

A city street sweeper hits the grounds at 5 a.m. to give the grounds a once over, and the park isn’t ready to open until one last task is completed.

While table-dancing is a longtime Summerfest tradition, it’s also a dirty one. A day of walking around in spilled beer and other refuse leaves many of those picnic tables and benches in less-than-pristine condition, so fire hoses are used to clean off the hundreds of tables on the grounds.

In addition, Summerfest management has charged its grounds team with the task of making the event a more environmentally-friendly one. Recycling efforts have been stepped up this year with noticeable results.

Next to nearly every garbage can on the grounds sits a recycling station. Plastic bottles and cups are collected. Last year, about 60,000 plastic bottles were sent to the City of Milwaukee’s recycling center. This year, that number has more than doubled, with 175,920 bottles sent to be recycled through July 4.

Andersen says that they expects the final recycling numbers to be five times what they were a year ago, when 7.52 tons of trash were recycled, and the goal of going green isn’t just limited to recycling the garbage produced on the grounds.

"All of the plastic bags we use are from recycled material," Andersen says. "We also are using green cleaning products and are always finding ways to become greener."

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