Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of occasional articles inspired by readers' curiosity. What do you wonder about the Baltimore area that you'd like us to investigate? Tell us at baltimoresun.com/ask.
Strolling the sidewalk on his lunch break, John Chalmers watched customers exit a downtown carryout, take three steps and casually toss their trash in the gutter.
For the man whose mantra is “Baltimore is not your personal trash can,” it struck a nerve.
“What’s shocking is that there was no shame,” said Chalmers, head of the city’s Solid Waste Bureau.
From downtown curbs to vacant lots, litter abounds in Baltimore. It’s hardly a unique problem, but managing litter is complex because it is both entrenched in and dwarfed by larger issues in the city like violence and poverty.
“It’s really rooted to a lot of the deep systemic challenges that we’re facing as a city in a way that it’s much more complex than just, like, ‘Oh, this person doesn’t care about the environment so they threw their trash on the ground.’ It’s much more than that,” said Ashley Van Stone, executive director of Trash Free Maryland. “A lot of times there’s a much deeper motivation for the behavior.”
Cleaning up litter — particularly before it enters waterways that lead to the Chesapeake Bay — is one thing. But preventing people from ditching their trash where it doesn’t belong requires a shift in mindsets — a heavier lift than simply picking up garbage.
“I can’t unsee … a single piece of litter,” Van Stone said. “The challenge is so big. Can we really tackle it?”
As the next installment in this series of stories inspired by readers’ questions, The Baltimore Sun took a look at the city’s mounting litter problem, the forces at play behind trash and what’s being done to address it.
Why is there so much trash?
From horse-drawn carts to trash-compacting trucks, the city has provided solid waste collection since 1872. But cleaning up after citizens has gotten harder as disposable goods have proliferated, a problem magnified by Baltimore’s population density.
With 694 staff members to handle 210,000 households over nearly 90 square miles, Baltimore’s Solid Waste Bureau does not have enough resources to effectively clean up behind more than 600,000 city residents, Chalmers said. His agency processes 150,000 tons of trash a year from home pick-ups alone. That doesn’t include some 383,000 service requests the bureau received last year to clean vacant properties, abate rats, clear alleys and storm drains — a 22 percent increase from the year prior.
Baltimore can’t clean its way out of its trash problem, he said, especially when piles of trash on vacant lots and in alleyways set a bad example for others to dump more waste.
“There are a lot of pockets in the city where we clean up today and literally before the truck turns the corner, somebody has deposited the debris back to the corner,” Chalmers said. “It makes it very difficult to get to a place where we have a clean city.”
Theresa DiDonato, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland, agreed litter begets litter. There’s a push and pull between unspoken societal norms — in this case, the understanding that littering is wrong — and how people actually act. It all comes down to context.
“If you’re in a place that is already littered, if there’s already litter there, you’re much more likely to litter because that’s what people do in that setting,” she said. “If you look around and you see a lot of cleanliness, you’re actually less likely to litter.”
Three years ago the city spent $9 million to provide every household with uniform green trash cans in an effort to curb the city’s rat population. And the Solid Waste Bureau is expanding a program to provide business districts with solar compacting trash cans, equipped with lids that prevent people from stuffing household trash into them.
Though the Department of Public Works received fewer requests for rat abatement in the months following the trash cans’ implementation, giving people trash bins isn’t always enough to create clean environments.
“You have to be educated on recycling in order for it to work, just giving out the trash cans, it ain’t how it works,” said Rocky Brown, president of the Bocek/Madison East End Community Association.
Though alleys in his neighborhood have gotten cleaner in recent years, garbage still overflows from the green 65-gallon bins and other cans that aren’t picked up by city trash collectors behind houses on his block.
In a city struggling with widespread violence, addiction, poverty and segregation, litter can seem like a lesser problem. But the issues often correlate.
A 2016 study by Trash Free Maryland found Baltimoreans were reluctant to pick up litter for fear of what they might find — namely, syringes.
“That’s a heightened concern and a very realistic one, as well as the frustration of the condition that some communities are in and it almost being an act of rebellion to that frustration and the disappointment of feeling like your community is neglected and not cared for,” Van Stone said. “‘What does does it matter if I throw this litter on the ground? Like, no one cares about me; no one cares about my community.’”
Trash collectors who arrive to tidy up vacant properties are sometimes met by drug dealers who turn them away, saying their stashes are hidden inside, Chalmers said. And some DPW workers have found dead bodies while cleaning lots.
“Crime and grime goes hand in glove,” Chalmers said.
Reducing litter has become a policy priority at the state and city levels. New Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young listed cleaning city streets among his top issues in office. And the Maryland General Assembly voted to ban polystyrene food containers — a major problem in the trash stream because they do not biodegrade.
But legislation only goes so far, and needs to be paired with grassroots efforts, experts say.
“This isn’t something that government can necessarily change,” said Jenn Aiosa, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore. “We could have an individual piece of legislation to ban every single-use disposable piece of trash. At the end of the day I don’t know that that is the most effective way to go.”
Trash Free Maryland has worked to create a more cohesive effort between community groups in Baltimore by forming the Trash Free Baltimore Collaborative — a network of neighborhood organizations and city officials all working to clean streets.
Much of the effort starts at the individual level. Cleaning up Bocek/Madison East End — physically and metaphorically — became a calling for Brown after he was released from prison in 2010. Some streets and sidewalks are still strewn with debris, and flies buzz over garbage cans overflowing with refuse. But Brown recalled worse conditions in years past, when alleys were piled so high with trash that people couldn’t pass through them.
“I’ve seen people dump trash — a whole truckload — in an alley, in one of my alleys. I don’t lose my mind,” he said.
Brown, 65, walks the neighborhood daily, while other elders in the community enforce cleanliness on their blocks. He’s recruited others to help with clean-up efforts one by one.
“That’s how I overcome the obstacles of getting people to really understand … what I expect out of the community,” Brown said. “We out here together, everyone should be together as a community, not the hood.”
Instilling a sense of ownership and pride in the community has helped. In 2014, Brown led the charge to rebrand Madison East End, renaming it Bocek for the park that borders its northeast side, Frank C. Bocek Park. A lifelong Baltimorean, Brown has seen a change in his neighborhood since it adopted the new identity.
“We was always living on that mentality where this is the ghetto and the hood. And it’s not any more as of 2010 — it is a community. This how a community supposed to look,” Brown said. “If this was the hood, it’s acceptable because we’re the ghetto. It’s supposed to look like that in the hood or the ghetto.”
Giving residents a stake in their community also helped Sharp Leadenhall clean up, even if they don’t generate the litter that comes from crowds of sports fans walking to games or tailgates at nearby M&T Bank Stadium.
“I said, ‘Well we can flip the script and use this as an opportunity for community engagement,’” said Betty Bland-Thomas, president of the South Baltimore Partnership in Historic Sharp Leadenhall.
In 2011, the neighborhood created a YouthWorks program to employ neighborhood youth to clean its streets. The initiative later grew to employ three adults who clean the streets each morning year-round, as well as children 8-13, who pitch in two Saturdays a month.
The work has expanded to include cleaning bridges on Ostend and Hamburg Streets, as well as streets in neighboring Otterbein and Federal Hill.
Cheryl Bryant said cross-collaboration is just as vital on the other side of the harbor, where she and other residents near Patterson Park work to maintain Library Square, a strip of green space between Fayette Street and Pulaski Highway. A decade ago, the small plot was dark and covered with dog droppings and cigarette butts. But clean-up events and landscaping have transformed the park.
Community clean-ups like those at Library Square can establish a new normal and actually shift behaviors, DiDonato said.
“Situation when it comes to littering is probably the most powerful force,” said DiDonato, the psychology professor. “People care for things that seem to be cared for.”
If that mentality spread, it could make a difference.
“To change the way the city looks, to change the litter and debris in the city, we have to first change behavior. People have to take personal responsibility,” Chalmers said. “Folks aren’t born with this mentality that ‘I’m gonna go throw my trash in the gutter or, if I see it, on a vacant lot.’”