No thanks to litterbugs, Baltimore is a cleaner city

Baltimore's big trash year on two fronts -- street sweeping and harbor scooping

I tell people I think Baltimore is cleaner than it used to be, and some of them — though not all of them — tell me I'm nuts. They say the city is filthy with trash, and they blame the present administration in City Hall for the mess. I tell them they need to get around a little more, that their idea of the present reality is based on an outdated perception.

You'll get no argument from me that, in places, the city is filthy. Some blocks in Baltimore seem to get trashed minutes after the street sweeper comes through. Last month, I saw an amazing pile of bulk trash that someone had decided to dump near railroad tracks instead of taking to the municipal drop-off center two blocks away.

And even Baltimore's beloved Inner Harbor promenade, between Rash Field and Fells Point, gets trashed; the Waterfront Partnership's "clean team" has swept 350,000 pounds from it so far this year.

All that, plus what I'm about to report, confirms that Baltimore needs a renewed, smart and sustained anti-litter message because there are still too many people — such as that obtuse young man I encountered last week on the No. 3 bus — who just throw their trash into the streets.

Our trash stream is too long and wide, and its source is people — city dwellers as well as our neighbors in the immediate suburbs.

Still, the city is cleaner than it was just a few years ago.

The city is doing a better job at cleaning up our mess.

A lot of this is based on observations, my sense of how certain streets look this year compared to, say, a year ago or five years ago. I see real improvement in the municipal effort.

And, it turns out, I picked a good time to make this claim. The city is coming off a big year in trash removal, with two main developments in 2014: The expansion of street sweeping and the deployment of the new water wheel to scoop trash out of the Inner Harbor.

First, about the street sweeping:

Starting in spring, the city's fleet of 36 street sweepers hit parts of the city that previously had no such service or only scattered service. The Department of Public Works says that, with 11 additional street sweepers, all neighborhoods are now getting this service.

The city expects to sweep 15,000 tons of trash and debris out of Baltimore gutters this year. That's 5,000 tons more than in previous years, according to DPW officials. The expanded street sweeping has been financed in part with the stormwater fee the city started charging property owners last year. Remember that next time someone starts ridiculing the "rain tax."

City workers will collect another 20,000 tons from alleys, vacant properties and the shoulders of roads as well as from citizen cleanup campaigns. They've also pulled nearly 760 tons of debris out of storm drains.

Without those efforts, even more trash and debris would end up in the Inner Harbor, where city skimmers collect between 400 and 500 tons of trash annually.

Added to the armada this year was the solar-powered water wheel that the Waterfront Partnership launched. This floating trash-scooper, stationed at the end of the Jones Falls near the Pier 6 concert pavilion, has become something of a tourist attraction, and it even has a Twitter handle, Mr. Trash Wheel.

Since May, the wheel has removed 132 tons of trash and debris from the harbor, according to the Waterfront Partnership. That includes more than 80,000 plastic bottles, more than 90,000 foam containers, 36,000 plastic shopping bags, 66,000 snack bags and 4 million cigarette butts.

That's disgusting, I know.

Life would be grand if everyone did the decent thing and disposed of their trash in the proper way. That means using trash cans, if you can find one, or taking your trash home when you can't. That means taking your bulk trash to a drop-off center. That means recycling plastic and paper.

Sorry if this sounds like a lecture, but I refuse to believe that this message "goes without saying."

That's part of the problem.

Presently, for instance, Baltimoreans only recycle about 20 percent of their trash, according to DPW. The mayor's office has a citywide goal of 35 percent. Getting to that level, a state mandate, would make a huge difference.

Which gets me back to the public messaging.

The city — the whole region, really — needs a new campaign to get people to stop littering. That message was common 50 years ago, but it has lost steam since then and virtually disappeared from the public consciousness. Recycling had an extended roll-out in public service announcements 25 to 30 years ago, but that effort has faded, too. I think we take for granted that everyone got the message about trash and about recycling.

They didn't. It's needed again.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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