Baltimore City

Garbage grab bag: Sorting through questions to get to the truth about Baltimore’s trash problem

Did you ever wonder why Baltimore’s trash woes continue to make the headlines (or President Donald Trump’s tweets)? We dig in.

Most people would say violence is Baltimore’s No. 1 problem. Why does trash matter?

Trash affects everything from public health to crime to real estate values, said Ashley Van Stone, executive director of Trash Free Maryland.


“We know now that what goes downstream often ends up in us, through our food, and our water,” Van Stone said. She referred to recent research showing the prevalence of microplastics from waste that end up in everyday consumables such as bottled water.


Trash isn’t mutually exclusive to crime. Many leaders have linked the two and cited the need to address both.

Mayor Jack Young told The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board that criminals don’t like “clean spaces.” Drug dealers depend upon debris-cluttered alleys to stash drugs.

How much trash does Baltimore have?

Baltimore’s Solid Waste Bureau processes 177,000 tons of trash and recycling a year from home pickups. That doesn’t include a mind-boggling 62,000 service requests from 311 calls the bureau received during the year ending June 30 to clean vacant properties, abate rats and clear alleys.

“It’s hard to clean our way out,” said Jennifer Combs, spokesperson for the bureau. “That’s our challenge. The behavior needs to change.”

How does Baltimore’s trash compare with that of other cities?

Baltimore is not like the Italian cities of Rome and Naples, which have struggled with mountains of uncollected trash in recent years. There, locals have blamed everyone from incompetent city leaders to mafia leaders’ infiltration of the country’s waste management.

It’s also no Kamikatsu, a small village in southwestern Japan, where residents recycle 80 percent of the trash. The town plans to have zero waste next year.

But Baltimore has faced significant challenges of excessive litter and illegal dumping for decades. And it is nowhere near zero waste. Less than 20 percent of the 177,000 tonnage picked up by city workers is recycling. A recent presentation by the Department of Public Works shows that Baltimore lacks many of the waste-reduction programs found in other cities such as a recyclable bottle redemption program in Portland, Oregon.


Why is trash a persistent problem?

“We have become a disposable society,” Van Stone said, noting how the amount of waste has grown with all of our disposable plastic products and containers. “Our capacity systems capturing that waste haven’t matched that growth.”

Many corner stores in Baltimore’s “fresh food deserts” sell only packaged food and lack the fresh food sold at grocery stores, Van Stone noted.

The city’s crime problem also makes it hard for city staff to keep some neighborhoods clean.

“Crime and grime goes hand in glove,” said John Chalmers, head of the city’s Solid Waste Bureau. Chalmers said dealers will dump piles of trash in the exact spots just cleaned by sanitation workers.

What does Baltimore’s government do about trash?

Besides picking up trash from homes, Baltimore’s Solid Waste Bureau also responds to thousands of 311 requests to clean up illegal dumping.

The department has “drop-off centers” across the city where residents can drop off trash or recycling if they missed the regular pickup days. The have mechanical street sweepers and other programs to reduce waste.


The 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.

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.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is launching CleanStat, which will be part of CitiStat and measure the effectiveness of the city’s trash removal, according to Lester Davis, a spokesman for the mayor.

What are residents doing about trash?

Dozens of neighborhood groups across Baltimore have neighborhood litter-pickup days and crews. BMORE Beautiful is a city-led beautification program under which “Beautiful Captains” organize neighborhood cleanups and beautification activities.

What about illegal dumping?

Breaking News Alerts

Breaking News Alerts

As it happens

Be informed of breaking news as it happens and notified about other don't-miss content with our free news alerts.

Illegal dumping is most common in areas close to major highways, garbage dumps and reclamation centers, said Jason Hessler, the city’s deputy housing commissioner for permits and litigation. In many cases, private haulers might have arrived after one of the facilities closed, or they might have been turned away for some reason, and so they find secluded areas to unload. Some are seeking to avoid paying tipping fees charged to commercial haulers, he said.

How does the city address illegal dumping?

The city housing department sends four or five inspectors every day to common dumping sites, and responds to reports of dumping made via 311. And it uses a network of 76 cameras the department uses to catch illegal dumpers, most of them $700 devices used by hunters that detect motion and capture surveillance in color and video.


Since the department took over dumping enforcement in 2009, the strategies have become increasingly effective at catching offenders, Hessler said. That has shifted the responsibility from public works officials to housing code prosecutors who use sanitation and health codes to bring cases to district court judges used to dealing with such issues, he said.

President Trump tweeted about Baltimore trash. Then what?

After President Donald Trump described the 7th District of Maryland (including parts of Baltimore) as “disgusting, rat and rodent infested," conservative activists showed up in West Baltimore with trash bags and shovels, clearing alleyways and vacant lots. The effort was organized by pro-Trump activist Scott Presler, who said the event was not political.

On Thursday, trash hauler John Rourke is scheduled to arrive in Baltimore with a team of sanitation workers from Florida and New York. Rourke said he was inspired to tidy the city after Trump criticized it as a place where “no human being would want to live.”

What innovative programs can Baltimore and other cities implement to fight trash?

There is a plethora of examples across the world about how to help cut down on waste. A program in Rome gives residents free transit fares for turning in plastic bottles. Washington D.C., drastically cut down on plastic bag litter after it began charging 5 cents per bag. San Jose, California, pays homeless individuals $15 an hour to pick up trash in litter hot spots.

Baltimore Sun reporters Sarah Meehan and Scott Dance contributed to this report.