Bay Journal

Solution to Baltimore’s trash is right in city’s backyards

  • By Raymond D. Bahr on December 01, 2012
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Trash collects in Baltimore’s Gwynns Falls, which flows into Jones Falls and eventually, Baltimore Harbor.  (Dave Harp )

Trash accumulations are reaching out-of-control proportions and are not aggressively addressed because the problem is deemed unsolvable. Most of the attempts by the city to deal with the trash problem in Baltimore and the Inner Harbor are old school and appear to be just going through the motions with little to show for progress. Status quo and not causing problems for the mayor seems to be what is expected from city officials.

Excessive trash reaches the harbor through the storm drains that are needed because 70 percent of Baltimore City is impervious. Excessive trash also clogs inlets to the drains (arteries) and promotes flooding and sink holes.

The city responds to crisis situations and always blames the problem on old infrastructure. Meanwhile, the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news broadcasts offer "breaking news" to those still watching stale television.

Life goes on unchanged and unchallenged. The begging question is: Does it have to be this way?

Let's talk about the trash problem. How does so much trash get into Baltimore Harbor? Where does this trash come from? What are root causes of trash accumulation? Is there a better way of getting rid of this trash and keeping Baltimore clean?

Let's do an experiment. We know that there are 26 storm water outlets to the Inner Harbor and that trash flows out with the water. Along with the trash are pollutants such as bacteria and nutrients that can cause marine and human health problems. Let's see if we can significantly reduce the trash to one of these 26 stormwater outlets — and if successful — adopt this model at the other outlets.

This experiment was actually carried out and is known as the Harris Creek Watershed Project. This watershed includes 17 diverse city neighborhoods in East Baltimore that came together and conducted a major trash sweep covering 4,000 homes over a 10-week period — June 16 through Aug. 31, 2010.

The coordinated sweep involved the city's departments of Housing and Public Works along with neighborhood trash leaders. The result: Trash was reduced at the outlet to the harbor from 4 tons a month to less than half a ton each month. We were able to do this because we had a Trash Interceptor that accurately measured the amount of trash coming out of the outlet.

Where did all of this trash come from? We walked rounds in all of the watershed alleys and discovered more than 100 mini-landfills (dumps) in the backyards of vacant houses. What proved to be helpful in these cases was the ability to call 311-TRASH. Callers gave an exact location, were given a service report number that identified the trash, which the DPW was required to clean up within one week.

Why had this trash not been reported by city workers who walked these alleys on a daily basis? Why were other parts of the city getting better services than those in the inner city, where many vacant houses with backyards that served as extra dumps are found?

Once a site turns into a dump, it becomes an easy target for more dumping. Trash bags are required to be placed in trash cans to keep rats and cats out of them. When there are not enough neighborhood trash cans, trash bags are thrown into these artificial dumps. In many cases, these bags are collected and placed at the ends of alleys so trash trucks do not have to go back into the alleys.

Thus, one can see where the city's excessive trash is coming from: the subculture that allows for this practice to continue and the resistance to change for the better.

The beauty of this story is that it is correctable in time with the right moves — but they have to be bold moves. Bold moves can work if city leaders develop vision and maintain tenacity to the vision.

What is a bold move that will move this city to clean up its act?

I would propose the following:

We presently have a Baltimore Harbor WaterKeeper working with the Maryland Department of the Environment to reduce pollutant loads in the harbor through the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load.

Trash is considered a pollutant and a TMDL for it will be developed here. But, here, we are only talking about trash when it gets into the water.

It seems to me that what we really need is a TMDL for land trash, and along with this should come a Trash LandKeeper. The LandKeeper would make daily alley rounds and issue service reports to the DPW to clean up the back yards of vacant houses.

To work, though, the Landkeeper must belong to another city department that would make sure that the DPW is doing what it is paid to do instead of creating two Baltimore services — one for affluent and one for poverty stricken areas.

This would ensure fairness and justice to all citizens of Baltimore City. Discovering and addressing this injustice will go a long way in bringing back a clean Baltimore City and a safe and clean Baltimore Harbor that will be fishable and swimmable in our lifetime.

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About Raymond D. Bahr
Raymond D.Bahr, MD, is a retired cardiologist from St. Agnes Hospital and coordinator of the Harris
Read more articles by Raymond D. Bahr

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