Talking trash in Baltimore [Commentary]

A used diaper, a half-eaten banana and a ripped shirt. The significance of these three items could be anything, depending on the person. But for me, these random objects represent a glimpse of the trash that could be littering my neighborhood at any given moment.

Putting it simply: Baltimore is filthy. It's the type of filth so impressive that Travel + Leisure awarded it the 3rd dirtiest American city in 2012 (behind No. 1 New York and No. 2 New Orleans). To put it in perspective — if grime were an Olympic sport, Baltimore would be a medalist. Walking trips through my neighborhood of Hampden are a joy as long as you keep an ever vigilant eye to the ground ready to dodge the multiple pieces of wet litter that, if stepped in, could ruin any day.

Baltimore's litter problem brings no charm to the city. Aside from being a blight on the city's landscape, it can also effect our health and our mood (which could explain why Baltimore was ranked the 2nd angriest city by Men's Health Magazine, as well). But beyond the health aspects, it affects us in something that we really care about: our wallets.

There has been a slew of legislation specifically designed to save us from ourselves when it comes to trash, with varying degrees of success. A key component of the statewide Stormwater Management Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, better known as the much mocked "rain tax," is combating the flow of litter and trash that finds its way into the Chesapeake Bay. Also the recently failed foam ban for restaurants, which many business owners complained would cause them to raise prices, was introduced because some people mistake pavement for trash cans, and the containers eventually find their way into the harbor — a look that can't be helpful to the mayor's efforts to bring 10,000 families to the city over the next decade.

Professionals who come to the city to work in downtown office buildings may end up questioning why they are paying a higher cost of living to dwell among islands of garbage once they get here.

I can recall multiple occasions in which I stumbled upon mind-blowing oases of trash this winter. Tipped over trash cans on Falls Road, an explosion of trash behind the Hampden Giant, an actual trash can with its full contents left on the side the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Let's not even ask if this is the type of living standard that we have for our own residents, but what must tourists and visitors think when they are met with such blight?

Thankfully, not everyone is as jaded as those who discard their junk onto the ground. There are efforts being made to clean up Baltimore. In November, the city went ahead with a plan to test out "smart" trash cans. The bins — equipped with radio frequency identification technology — will be used in an attempt to reduce rat infestation and litter in hopes that giving people free garbage cans will keep them from hurling their trash into back alleys. There have also been community efforts beyond government action to get this city cleaned up, such as the One Piece anti-litter campaign, which implores people to pick up at least one piece of litter a day, or the "trash mobs" who congregate on vacant lots to rid them of their filth.

While efforts like these may be great, at the end of the day the onus is still on individuals to hold onto that piece of trash a little bit longer until they can drop it into a garbage can. No citizen should want or have to live in a city where the most common lawn ornaments are tin cans and fast food bags, or look forward to the snow because it will make the neighborhood look clean.

Mitchell MacNaughton is an artist and writer living in Baltimore. His email is

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