Health & Environment

Downtown View: Tribulations From Trash

Bostonians have just come down from the high of community spirit driven by the marathon. We’ll soon get another opportunity for that same high when we get together to clean up the city. It’s the Scrub the Hub, aka Boston Shines, days. For downtown Bostonians, those days are May 9 and 10.

Remarkably, lots of people show up for this heavy-duty work detail, and they enjoy it. The city supplies brooms and other cleaning paraphernalia. It’s nice to get out and be with your neighbors, some of whom you’ve not seen since you were all out shoveling after the last snowstorm. It’s also nice to have clean sidewalks, schoolyards and medians after a winter when trash has been laminated in the ice.

There’s only one problem with this scenario. The cleaning doesn’t last. There are not enough trash bins along streets heavily used by pedestrians, especially in the center of historic neighborhoods frequented by thousands of tourists. The bins that do exist are often overflowing. Not enough shopkeepers and homeowners sweep or pick up in front of their property. Too many dog owners leave their bags in a tree pit. Finally, in the North End and on Beacon Hill, household trash can sit legally on the street for up to 19 hours three days a week if the trash haulers don’t come until noon—which happens more than the city likes to admit. That’s almost a third of an entire week, ample opportunity for the rats or the trash pickers to get into the bags and strew around the contents.

There is hope on at least one front—trash pickup. Because of an outcry from downtown neighborhoods, led by 1,000 signatures from North Enders and a community meeting convened by City Councilor Sal LaMattina, city officials have asked prospective trash haulers to bid on several scenarios, including more recycling pickups and a shorter window, probably beginning at 6 a.m., for legally setting out trash on pickup days. This affects mostly the North End and Beacon Hill, since neighborhoods with large apartment buildings like the West End or Downtown have building-by-building solutions, the city believes Charlestown residents have more space, although along some streets that idea is a stretch, and the Back Bay has alleys, which make storing trash easier.

Bids have been received but no word has come out on a decision.

Here is the statement from the city from spokeswoman Gabrielle Farrell: “One of the options for bidding involves multiple recycling days in those districts, and bids were opened March 27th and 28th. Multiple collection districts have been assessed and discussions are ongoing about the process ahead.”

I think that means city officials are still scratching their heads over what to do now.

Councilor Josh Zakim’s office clarified things a bit. “The new contract is out to bid,” said Kyndal Henicke, Zakim’s deputy chief of staff. “They are soliciting bids for the two plus two, [She means two trash pickup days and two recycle pickup days.] and also a narrower pick-up window. Ideally, our office would like two plus two.”

She said the city also solicited bids for keeping things the way they are now—three trash pickup days and one recycling pickup each week in those two neighborhoods.

City officials said they thought changing the schedule would increase costs, which some North End residents questioned. City officials would not say when a decision will be made, and neither Zakim’s nor LaMattina’s office were privy to the city’s schedule for decision making.

But if we don’t change our schedules, we won’t get cleaner streets, nor will we achieve our goal in recycling, which everyone says they want. We’ll just continue feeding the landfills.

To get perspective on this, I asked friends who live in the Marina district in San Francisco, a city that is remarkably clean and has achieved all kinds of success in reducing trash. We joke that we lead parallel lives on each coast. Like us, they generate only a small bag of trash each week. The rest is recycle.

But the parallel ends there. Despite the close quarters in the Marina, they have a garage, as do their neighbors. They have three bins— one each for trash, recyclables and kitchen and yard waste for compost. All of this gets picked up once a week.

For this service, they paid $335 in 2012 on top of their tax bill.

I wonder if Bostonians are ready for that.

Meanwhile, although it isn’t part of the current contract bid, Boston is looking into adding kitchen and yard waste pickup to city services, where it would apparently go into a big city compost pile, said Kyndal Henicke. JP residents have been clamoring for such a service. She said Beacon Hill might be the site of a pilot program for downtown.

Stay tuned.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at

7 Replies to “Downtown View: Tribulations From Trash

  1. Something needs to be done. The streets and sidewalks are disgusting with trash, doggie bags, trash bags with holes and q-tips, old toothbrushes, etc. falling out all over the streets and sidewalks. Half the buildings care and the other half seem like they do not. Many people don’t pick up and sweep outside their door. Half the businesses don’t clean their sidewalks either. Let’s boycott those restaurants and stores that don’t help out sweeping and picking up trash in front of their storefront. People, pick up in front of your door. Call out those liter bugs. Let’s be proud of our neighborhood. Also the city needs to do their part too – same day pick up! The city is the main culprit here – letting us leave our trash on the street for half the week. Gross. Duh, no wonder why there’s trash blowing up and down the streets. We are also in major need for more trash cans. Come on politicians – help make Boston a cleaner city. We are trashing this wonderful historic beautiful city – and there’s things we can do about this!

  2. I have yet to hear anyone mention this, maybe it’s because I am a little ignorant in the laws of trash, but why couldn’t there be a neighborhood ordinance banning trash picking “from trash bags”? Up on Copps Hill, I see more trash bags that have been torn open and/or untied from people picking through the trash for bottles and what have you. Given the unique situation we have in the North End, i.e., no trash barrels, you’d think this would be an easy ordinance to get passed. I think it’s OK to pick up furniture or whatever other items that get thrown away not in trash bags, but if it’s in a proper trash bag it’s off limits. You can’t stop critters and morons who just don’t care (I’d like to think you could stop the morons) but every little bit counts.

  3. Who is going to enforce this law? Once the bags are on the sidewalk, they are fair game according to the area a police. get rid of the bottle and can deposits and problem solved. no reason for anyone to rip open bags if there is no $0.05/per item for returning them.

    1. I wholly agree. The deposits are good part of this problem. The don’t prevent drunks from smashing their bottles when they are done with them and yuppies don’t want the inconvenience of returning them. They were intended to prevent litter. Instead they are adding litter to the streets of the neighborhood.

  4. Let’s think of the simplest solution. We do have a mechanism to prevent trash from being on the sidewalk. There are fines. This should apply to bags of trash and also loose bits of trash. The trash collectors are pretty messy and leave lots of bits around. But it’s also the responsibility of residents. Right now there is a $30 fine or so if trash is in front of a property outside of collection hours. Either this fine is not being appropriately levied, in which case we should lobby for greater enforcement, or the fine itself, $30, is too little to make an impact, in which case we should lobby for a larger fine. What speaks loudest in this world are dollars. If the city were strictly enforcing (I mean each and every time there is trash out on each and every property) and if the fine were $100, I am sure every property owner would be very attentive.

    Sure sometimes it’s a renter not the owner, but this is just one of those responsibilities that comes with being an owner. It’s an incentive not to rent to people you think might leave trash around.

  5. Please call the Mayors Hotline if you see trash bags out before collection times. They will come and ticket. This could make a difference. Also call to report garbage all over the street or areas that need cleaning. They have people who will come clean. The squeaky wheel and all… 617-635-4500

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