San Jose’s Trash Punx brings new twist to garbage removal
Justin Imamura and The Trash Punx volunteers work to clean up around existing and abandoned homeless encampments in San Jose, especially by creek beds. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    One man is working to make San Jose and the world cleaner, one piece of trash at a time.

    All his life, San Jose resident Justin Imamura has been motivated to give back to the community and care for the environment. He leads The Trash Punx, a San Jose nonprofit dedicated to both. It hosts waterway and street cleanups, electronic waste recycling, school assemblies about recycling and free markets to keep items out of landfills. 

    Imamura, 40, started The Trash Punx in 2017 as a response to the overwhelming amount of trash accumulating on the streets and waterways in San Jose.

    “I saw so much illegal dumping happening,” the San Jose native told San José Spotlight, “and wanted to do something about it. The city just doesn’t have enough resources and people power to take care of it.”

    San Jose has struggled with illegal dumping for years. In May 2021, the San Jose City Council voted to increase first-offense fines for illegal dumping to $10,000.

    Imamura capitalizes on his background as a drummer and passion for punk and rock music to energize The Trash Punx events, where 25-50 volunteers regularly lend a hand. Imamura’s experience as an event coordinator for San Jose Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services provides him with the skills to helm the nonprofit.

    Volunteers with The Trash Punx clean up around the Guadalupe River in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Faive Atualevao.

    The Trash Punx held its first cleanup event after Coyote Creek flooded in February 2017, when residents were evacuated to James Lick High School in East San Jose.

    “We did a cleanup event right by the school,” Imamura said. “A lot of the people who had their houses flooded… they’d already lost everything. I didn’t want them to have to walk outside… into a bunch more trash. We cleaned up and the smiles on everyone’s faces were super inspiring.”

    More than a year later in December 2018, The Trash Punx received a commendation from the city alongside Echo Church and South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition for removing almost 10 tons of trash, including 150 tires, from Coyote Creek near Corie Court. Imamura initially turned to groups such as South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition and Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful for mentoring, but that early advice has evolved into mutual collaboration to clean up the city.

    Steve Holmes, founder and executive director of South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition, said Imamura has vision, a driving force and a genuine connection with youth.

    “He does great work. He’s a very positive and energetic guy,” Holmes told San José Spotlight. “His energy is contagious. And he’s making some great contributions to reducing trash on our street and along our creeks, which are in dire need.”

    Justin Imamura surveys trash dumped along the Guadalupe River Park trail. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Cleaning up the city

    On April 1, about 100 volunteers including The Trash Punx, South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition and Mayor Matt Mahan’s and Councilmember Pam Foley’s offices collaborated to clean up the Guadalupe River. The Trash Punx unofficially adopted a section of the Guadalupe River near Coleman Avenue, which suffers from ongoing illegal dumping, as well as new and abandoned homeless encampments. One spot had more than four feet of trash and hundreds of bikes, Imamura said.

    “Any illegal dumping of trash goes straight to the bay,” he said. “I want to get it stopped before it gets there.”

    Imamura surveys areas on a weekly basis to see where cleanups are needed. He tells homeless residents that volunteers will be doing a trash cleanup in their area, but won’t take their personal items. The group provides them with trash bags as well.

    “We build that partnership,” he said. “Our hearts go out to those temporarily living unhoused… but what we care about are the voices that can’t speak: the environment.”

    Vanessa Rogier, CFO and conservation manager of The Trash Punx, said Imamura is passionate, resilient and driven and wants to make an impact on the world. 

    “There’s a lot of trash out there,” she said, adding they see grocery carts, kitchen equipment, mattresses and tires in the water and on creek beds.

    Rogier said it’s a matter of educating people that alternatives exist to get rid of unwanted items for free, like the San Jose 311 app, which allows residents to report and track cleanup of blight and graffiti.

    “Pollution is a global problem,” she said, “and affects all of us.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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