Use the cans and starve all the rats out

The Baltimore Sun

I don't know about you, but I find the Container Store catalog practically pornographic. I can spend hours pawing through it, imagining a life in which everything not just has its place, but a color-coordinated, perfectly sized and thoughtfully configured one.

But as with all porn, the thrill is illusory. Eventually, I return to the real world, where my clutter remains scattered on countertops or forever underfoot, free radicals that defy containment by mere polypropylene stacking bins or galvanized storage cubes.

Still, the lure of the perfect receptacle endures.

So now I turn my desirous eyes toward those green, lidded, wheeled, rat-proof and bar-coded trash cans that Baltimore City wants to issue to each and every household in its latest effort to manage our messes and contain our overconsumption.

At a Tuesday hearing on another tidy-up initiative - City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposed toughening of the illegal-dumping ordinance - officials unveiled a plan to hand out 64-gallon trash cans with attached lids to every household, which garbage trucks can lift and empty automatically. It's a way to get residents to stop putting their garbage out in plastic bags, which are (a) too easily gnawed through by rats and (b) against the law. (You're already supposed to be using a lidded container, although the city acknowledges that about half the households don't.)

But the new trash cans - which the city hopes to send forth this summer - are also something of a bait and switch. Baltimore wants to go to from twice- to once-weekly trash pick-up, a prospect that drives everyone crazy whenever it's broached, and the city no doubt hopes for whatever shiny-new-thing distraction the new cans provide. It may be on to something - remember the crowds that lined up in the cold a year ago for the coveted yellow recycling bins? Maybe the city could similarly order too few of the trash cans and create a similar mad rush for them.

Actually, it won't work in quite so chaotic a way. The city plans to buy one for just about every household, and each will be bar-coded with the home's address. (So, no, you don't have to paint "STOLEN FROM" and your address on your trash cans anymore.) Celeste Amato, director of Mayor Sheila Dixon's cleaner-greener program, said the city is working out the details - in some older neighborhoods, for example, some houses may not have alley access or somewhere to stash the huge cans, and some streets or alleys may be too narrow for trucks to get to even the smaller 32-gallon cans that will be an option for some houses.

"We're not going to just show up at your house with a giant can," she said.

She's braced for the usual outrage over the proposed move to once-weekly pick-up schedule, even though - be still, my clutter-battling heart - recycling days will increase from twice-monthly to once-weekly. I've heard the same arguments - that the streets will be even filthier and the rats more prolific because people will toss out their trash out there in between pick-up days.

I don't buy it. For one thing, anyone who litters like that - I believe the scientific term for them would be "slobs" - will do that no matter how many days a week the garbage trucks come around. And the collectors don't sweep up unbagged garbage anyway. For those people, the only solution, unfortunately, is to pick up after them and, if you can, report them to the city. Rawlings-Blake's legislation, incidentally, would increase the penalties for illegal dumping - and add a community service component that would require convicted slobs to put in some hours cleaning up the streets. It would also create a dedicated hot line for residents to snitch on illegal dumpers.

The new trash plan has some hurdles to get past. Already concerns have arisen over the cost, about $3 million to buy the containers and add lifts to the trucks to allow for automatic dumping. But proponents say the city could save as much as $5.5 million a year once the new pick-up schedule and the revised garbage routes are in place.

The city, it is hoped, can appeal to a certain neat-freakiness that seems buried deep in the Baltimore psyche. This is a place, after all, where people regularly scrubbed their marble steps and swept their alleys. Some still do. It's the city that boasts the AFRO Clean Block Competition, said to be the oldest such contest in the country.

And it's a city that clings to its twice-a-week garbage pick-up. But Amato argues that no matter how frequently you put out your trash, if it's in plastic bags, you're inviting rats. "We feed them really well," she said. "If you don't use a can with a lid, they'll never leave."

Starve 'em, she said

"If they're deprived of food, they'll move to the next block," Amato said. "They'll move into another colony's territory, and they'll start battling each other for food. If they take each other out, that's good for us."

And sometimes, they can even be moved beyond the city limits: Buffalo, N.Y., apparently a shining example of municipal cleanliness, so successfully contained its residents' garbage that the city rat population was forced to flee to the suburbs. I quote from a 2006 news story from one of the suburbs, Lancaster, in which the town supervisor told residents "that the first alert on rodents migrating from the city of Buffalo and into first and second ring municipalities came approximately six months ago." The county's health department started drawing up maps, showing the flow of rat-sighting complaints as they spread out from the city, as a way of persuading suburbs to go with the covered containers as well.

Amato thinks the vile rodents can be the perfect poster vermin for selling the new trash plan.

"If you don't care about the environment," she says, "at least be grossed out by the rats."

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