Baltimore's perpetual trash problem

Why can’t we have a clean city? It’s a problem that has perplexed generations of mayors in Baltimore. Call it the perpetual trash nemesis.

Decades of tactics have been tried to beat it. William Donald Schaefer’s Trashball campaign urged people to ball up their debris and toss it into a receptacle like a two-point shot. Kurt L. Schmoke banked on people idolizing Cal Ripken Jr. enough to convince them to pick up after themselves as part of his “It’s Your Baltimore. Don’t Trash It!” initiative, while Sheila Dixon tried to disgust people into doing better with photos of rats. Her “Cleaner, Greener Baltimore Initiative”also included adding hundreds of trash cans around the city and reducing trash pickup to focus more on recycling. Then there was Martin O’Malley, who made a big splash showing up to neighborhoods like a rock star clad in a jumpsuit and hanging from the back of a trash truck as part of an eight-day clean-up tour early in his administration.

Yet, here we are again in a mess of a city. Food containers, balled up clothes, paper, banana peels, plastic bags and tons of other pieces of litter line the shoulders of roads, pile up in alleys and are strewn across fields and yards. Not only is it unsightly and contributes to a rodent problem, but it can create a glum and gloomy feel in a time when the city is already facing self-esteem issues because of high crime and the scandal surrounding the University Maryland Medical System and Mayor Catherine Pugh, who’s now on an indefinite leave, and her Healthy Holly books. If anything, the city needs a major scrubbing to help restore some of its faith and image.

Acting Mayor Jack Young, tired of seeing people casually toss litter out of car windows or on the ground as they walk down the street, has decided to take on the issue as one of his main platforms. “A clean city is an inviting city,” he said during a recent meeting with The Sun’s editorial board. The city’s crime problem makes it hard to keep some neighborhoods clean, he said, noting that criminals don’t like “clean spaces.” They need trash piles to hide drug stashes or debris-cluttered alleys to make it difficult for police to chase them. John F. Chalmers, head of the city’s Bureau of Solid Waste, said sanitation workers will clean up trash piles only to have dealers dirty them up again. Some will threaten city employees who try to tidy up. So whatever Mr. Young has in mind, it seems solutions for the trash and crime problems will go hand-in-hand.

Mr. Young has no specific plan yet, which is understandable given that he is barely into the new, temporary position, but he has some ideas he hopes to implement, like working with the state to have inmates pick up trash. The city used to have such a program that also lead to sanitation jobs once people were released and would be worth bringing back. He might also want to follow the lead of some other cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, that have paid homeless people to help clean up neighborhoods.

The Bureau of Solid Waste also faces some other obstacles amid the growing calls for service, including a flat budget and high turnover among employees. Workers need CDL driver’s licenses, and those who have them can often find higher paying jobs elsewhere. The city’s housing department is responsible for investigations into illegal dumping and citations, which probably slows down the process of keeping the city clean. Maybe streamlining everything into one department would make it more efficient.

Still, some tactics the bureau has implemented have shown promise already, including installation of “smart trash cans” in certain neighborhoods that alert workers when they are almost full and opening up a city service center to small haulers to prevent illegal dumping.

But a cultural shift in the city needs to take place if Baltimore is to become home to clean streets and alleys. A change where people say it’s not OK to throw that hamburger wrapper out of my window because I have pride in my city. Those who don’t live in the city need to think about how they’d feel if somebody threw trash in their backyard as if it were the community landfill. To put it simply, too many people need a lesson in basic decency. And it’s people of all races, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds who are culprits of the widespread littering, which, by the way, is against the law.

Mr. Young was not shy in his criticism of people who won’t take personal responsibility for their contributions to the grime and grit, and we wish him luck in what other mayor’s have not been able to achieve. Sending the message from the top is a good start. Mr. Chalmers, who has been with the bureau for 30 years, called the trashing of the city a learned behavior and said workers often check dumped garbage to find it belongs to someone in the neighborhood. People need to know Baltimore is not their “personal trash can,” he said, and suggested that maybe public shaming, perhaps on social media, might make them see the light. Not sure if he was joking, but it’s not a half bad idea.

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