Talking trash and trashing Baltimore

Pulling out of a parking spot at the Giant on 41st Street in Hampden this weekend with a car full of groceries, I was blocked by a sedan that had paused in the middle of the lane. Why? So the passenger could throw food wrappers out of her open window.

It was all I could do to keep from getting out of my own car and tossing the trash back to her while screaming, “You dropped something!”

On my commute to work this morning, I passed old tires and takeout containers piled near I-83 exits downtown. At a party Saturday, discarded bottles in black plastic bags dotted Druid Hill Park like a minefield of litter bombs. Driving my daughter home from school last week, I developed a tic from her helpful hollering of “LITTER!” — with a kindergartener’s special kind of indignation — every time she saw trash tangled in a tree.

I don’t know if littering is getting worse in the city or if I just notice it more now that I have a kid. But it’s bad. I watched a man along York Road a couple of weeks ago actually take trash out of a receptacle and throw it into the road — along with the receptacle.

What’s wrong with people? Why can’t we keep our waste in our cars or on our persons until we arrive at our destinations? Is it really so hard? As the mother of a 5-year-old, I have found I can hold trash for hours on end because my child invariably hands whatever she discards to me. I somehow manage to not throw it on the ground — even while walking, even without pockets.

The mess is not just an eyesore. Litter reduces property values by 7 percent (though it feels like it should be higher, doesn’t it?), and dealing with it costs businesses and governments around $12 billion per year, according to Keep America Beautiful. It attracts vermin, is a fire hazard and breeds bacteria. But worse is the message it sends: Nobody cares.

Nobody cares about the kids who walk through the area, nobody cares about the area, nobody cares about the city.

It’s tempting to blame Baltimore officials. If only they’d clean it up, right? But where would you even start? And with what additional resources? The whole country is a trash pile. There are 6,729 individual pieces of litter per mile of roadway in America — 51.2 billion pieces overall — according to a 2009 study by Keep America Beautiful. And that’s down from the last time KAB studied this in 1969, when there were 130 billion littered items.

The city deserves credit for efforts it’s made in recent years in particular: installing trash wheels in the harbor and providing heavy duty trash cans to every residence to help control the rat population. This year, officials even banned polystyrene containers (commonly known as Styrofoam) and implemented “rapid response teams” within the Department of Public Works to quickly clean up troubled areas targeted for transformation, and the spending panel approved a $15 million, three-year contract to add 4,500 solar-powered trash cans throughout the city.

Some of the cans will reportedly double as wi-fi hotspots, though I’d prefer less wi-fi, and more inexpensive cans. KAB found that the distance to a trash receptacle directly affects littering (the farther away, the more litter) along with the amount of litter already present (“litter begets litter”). Adding more cans and emptying them seems easier than attacking the unofficial dump sites that sprout up because there aren’t cans.

But the ultimate predictors of whether you’ll litter are personal, according to KAB: Do you care?

I don’t know how to change the behavior of those who don’t, but those of us who do have a responsibility to act. We can call 311 to complain, but better yet, we can get out there. My husband has made a good effort to clean up a stretch of road along our daughter’s walk to school, and he routinely reminds (they might say “harasses”) the private school that owns the property to keep on top of the problem.

Then there are folks like members of the “trash basher” church group who regularly remove rubbish from the Homeland/Mid-Govans area; Eli Pousson, who’s been picking up trash for a year and last month launched a #30daysofpickinguplitter challenge; and Alec MacGillis, who bought an old pickup truck in part so he could launch his own cleanup crew.

After three solo cleanup efforts in the city, Alec, a former Sun reporter who now writes for ProPublica, and four volunteers on Saturday picked up seven bags worth of trash in 90 minutes along Greenspring Avenue, near the KIPP academies, where kids he tutors attend school. A librarian who was with him has vowed to finish the job there, and Alec is scouting out new sites all the time — the “no man’s lands” that fall between neighborhood spaces and are unmonitored or unclaimed, he says — hoping to make this a biweekly effort.

It’s almost as if he can’t stop seeing the trash now that he’s started looking. He rattles off locations: on West Cold Spring Lane, near the exit ramp from I-83 (“the trash is actually about 4 feet deep; you could bury a body back there”); a long stretch of embankment along the MARC train route near the West Baltimore station (“every day thousands of people going through the city” see that); along the southbound side of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, within the city limits (“anyone going to airport will see it, their last glimpse of city”).

He’s considering having T-shirts made.

Alec, Eli Pousson and their ilk may be a special breed — there are few who could maintain, or even conceive of, that level of commitment — but that shouldn’t deter the rest of us from doing what we can. Every little bit counts.

KAB found that 81 percent of the littering incidents its researchers witnessed were intentional. It was a choice, a habit. The rest of us can choose to clean it up, and thereby send a new message: We live here, and we care. You should too.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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