City's war on garbage picks up

Baltimore officials try to get a handle on trash problem

May 02, 2000|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The empty lot on Baltimore's Barclay Street is a clear reminder of how tough it is to clean a city. A month ago, the muddy patch near 22nd Street was scraped clean as part of Mayor Martin O'Malley's Super Spring Sweep Thing. In the days that followed, a steady collection of candy wrappers, soda cans and liquor bottlesquickly reappeared.

"They did a fairly good job," longtime resident Larry Jenkins said of the volunteer cleanup platoon that spread across Baltimore on March 24 and 25. "But then you've got this," Jenkins said, glancing at the new rubbish and castoffs -- a crumpled umbrella, a broken broom, an empty laundry soap box.

City officials call last month's blitz a first step in ridding Baltimore -- as much as is possible -- of litter and trash. They know it wasn't a cure-all, and they are following up with more neighborhood efforts, a mapping system to track trash complaints and instant-picture cameras for City Council members to snap pictures of places that need work.

O'Malley sees progress in the fight against grime -- "I think the city is looking cleaner," he said in announcing a series of neighborhood cleanups, the first of which was Friday in Northeast Baltimore.

But different people see different things.

Jenkins, 52, said he sees Baltimore getting dirtier. "Anywhere there's a vacant space, people are going to dump," he said.

To come to grips with just how clean or dirty the city is, Baltimore might follow New York's lead. For 26 years, New York has used a system to take monthly measures of how dirty or clean its streets and sidewalks are. While most people agree that New York today is pretty clean, officials there can prove it.

Disparate perceptions here suggest that Baltimore officials can't.

On Glenwood Avenue in Govans, a deep, grassy lot targeted in last month's cleanup is a testament to the persistent problem of urban trash.

Volunteers spent hours stuffing empty bottles, smashed cans, tossed food wrappers and even the occasional shoe or broken toy into plastic bags. They left the lot, a block off busy York Road, nearly spotless.

"It was totally like night and day," said George Lincoln, who works at Glenwood Life Counseling Center, a drug-rehabilitation clinic across the street, and helped with the cleanup.

Short-term gain

It didn't last. A few days later, a grimy pile -- an old olive-green stove, a water heater, a mattress, box springs, a tennis shoe and bags of trash -- had been dumped on a corner of the lot.

"We did it on a Saturday, and when I came in [to work] on Monday, there was this," Lincoln said.

About a week after Lincoln and neighbors complained, a city truck lumbered in to clear it away.

But after another week, more food wrappers and empty bottles appeared, leaving no easy measure of the lasting impact of the mayor's earnest anti-trash campaign.

"It made the neighborhood look better," said Barbara Blackwell, who has lived for years on nearby Ready Avenue and who helped with the cleanup. "I don't know -- maybe they don't have enough trucks or enough employees."

`Big-time job'

City leaders say residents must fully share in cleaning the city and sustaining its rugged gleam. But Chlorice Hooker, long active with the Woodbourne-McCabe neighborhood association, said it isn't always safe or practical to haul away other people's discarded mattresses, drug needles and other trash.

"I can tell you: We're not going to go out there and try to clean that up," Hooker said. "That's a big-time job."

Imagine then, the job of cleaning the whole city.

Tons of garbage

Baltimore's Department of Public Works will spend $59 million this year in the Bureau of Solid Waste. The city's solid waste department has 903 full-time and 204 temporary workers. The department estimates it picks up 750 tons of garbage every day.

Even as the city's population shrunk by nearly 14 percent since 1991, the job of collecting garbage remained a huge undertaking. The solid waste budget increased by 11 percent in that time, although the number of Bureau of Solid Waste employees generally remained steady.

Garbage collection at individual homes and businesses has dropped, from 294,000 tons in 1991 to 225,000 tons last year. But trash collected from street cleanings has jumped, from 57,900 tons in 1991 to 94,300 tons last year.

Immediately after last month's cleanup, its effectiveness could be seen in the city's waste collection numbers. In the week preceding the cleanup, public works employees collected 25.8 tons of debris from the Inner Harbor, where rains wash much of the litter from city streets. In the week following the cleanup, only 5.6 tons of debris were collected at the harbor, city records show.

The numbers don't tell whether Baltimore officials are winning the struggle, because they don't measure what is left behind. How much trash remains on the city's streets and sidewalks? How much is too much?

New York's solution

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