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Does Baltimore think trash cans cause litter?

On Oct. 22, the Baltimore City Council passed a bill confirming my long-held belief that people in Baltimore actually think trash cans cause litter. Though the bill appears simply to criminalize the dumping of excess quantities of noxious waste in public trash receptacles, it echoes many conversations I have had over the years asking about putting more trash cans around the city. Repeatedly, I would hear — from fellow citizens, to small shopkeepers, to contacts with well-placed staff in the Department of Public Works and the City Council — variations on this theme: "The more trash cans we put out, the more people dump in and around them and the messier things get, and neighbors ask us to remove them. Plus, we don't have the budget to empty the cans often enough."

This perverse logic actually reinforces the need for even more trash collection options. Rather than criminalizing the disposal of more than one pound or one cubic foot of waste in public trash receptacles, the city should put out more cans and collect them more often.

In contrast, I have observed that there is typically little litter on the streets of New York City, with 10 times Baltimore's population. From Harlem to Coney Island, and from the Hudson to the East River, there are public trash cans on most street corners.

In Baltimore, except in a few neighborhoods around the Inner Harbor, public trash cans are hard to find, and litter blows everywhere. The amount of debris is a corrosive suggestion that people don't care about their environment.

Trash on the streets is a function of the fact that there are not enough trash cans available, which reflects the deeply held belief in Baltimore that trash cans cause litter and illegal dumping. Instead of providing more trash cans and collections, the city now seeks to prosecute those who choose to use them.

Economics 101 tells us that as a commodity becomes rare, it becomes more valuable. As public trash collection remains under-available, desperate people are likely to engage in the "theft of services" represented by illegal dumping and littering.

People dump trash and litter not simply because they are lazy and won't walk a piece of trash into their own homes to wait for the weekly curbside trash collection. Of course, for some people, that's part of it. But by and large, people dump because there's no convenient place to dispose of refuse. An essential city service like trash collection should not become such a rare commodity that people abuse it when it is available.

A case in point is the busy, still somewhat verdant, two-mile stretch of 33rd Street in Northeast Baltimore that is home to one high school, a large YMCA recreation campus with senior housing, a grocery store and a hospital, and is bisected by several major transportation arteries and bus lines. A second high school and a lower school are in very close proximity, and during rush hours, vehicle and pedestrian traffic is heavy. Litter is widespread along 33rd Street, due to the undersupply of trash receptacles, especially at busy bus transfer corners.

By my count, there are only 11 public trash receptacles along 33rd Street between Lake Montebello and Greenmount Avenue, and they are nearly always overflowing with refuse. No intersection has trash cans at all four corners; only one intersection has more than one trash can nearby, and most have none at all.

"Dumpster Days" in many city neighborhoods are eagerly anticipated, and the containers fill rapidly. Making it easy to do the right thing is the cost of doing business for a city and promoting the civility of our shared public spaces.

Abundantly available trash cans, whether in New York City or North Baltimore, reinforce the point that trash belongs in them — not on the streets. If trash cans are more available, trash collection will become less of a stolen commodity, disposing of trash won't become a crime, and it will remain among the basic city services necessary to sustain the quality of our lives together.

Daniel Buccino is a psychotherapist from Baltimore. His email is dbuccino@jhmi.edu.

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