Commentaries Health & Environment

Downtown View: Good News for a Change

Listening to or reading the news can make you pretty depressed. We’re forced to learn that Congress, for example, doesn’t want us to have good roads, nor do they want children to have healthy meals in schools, and they’d rather we suffer from asthma than regulate coal emissions. You might think we’re living in a parallel universe that isn’t the good old America you thought you were in.

But then you notice a few small steps that we’re taking here in Boston that should make our lives better.

A good leader, John McDonough, at least for now, heads the school department. Our new mayor seems to be finding his groove. And the best news in the city’s cleanliness department is the change in recycle and trash pick-up.

Starting in July, in much of the downtown, we’ll get two chances a week instead of only one to recycle our bottles, boxes and papers. That will help us keep the inside of our homes tidier.

Even better, trash will sit on our sidewalks for fewer hours. The city, urged on by neighborhood groups, will pick up trash only two days a week—the same days they pick up recycle items—instead of the three days that some neighborhoods have endured.

Some people have complained that it’s a bad idea to reduce a city service from three to two times a week. Others have questioned the premise that fewer trash pickups will make for cleaner streets. It’s not really counter-intuitive. It’s logical, and it all starts with the added recycling day, which means the city is not reducing a service, just swapping an old one for a better one.

Most of us now have little trash. But we have lots of items that can be recycled. On too many days, materials that should be recycled are sitting on the sidewalk, waiting for the trash trucks only, presumably because residents living in apartments or small houses don’t have room to store such items until the one day a week on which recyclables are picked up.

With the new schedule, we’ll be able to rid ourselves of the recyclables twice a week, reducing the need for storage. Recycling is a boon to city coffers, saving the city money—sometimes even making a bit of money on each ton delivered to the recycling companies.

Household trash sitting on the sidewalk legally is one of the reasons Boston seems so trashy. And the longer the bags sit on the sidewalks, even if they are the proper bags, the more time the rats and trash pickers have to get into the trash and strew it about. Right now trash can sit on sidewalks on Beacon Hill and in the North End for more than 51 hours or 30 percent of the week, since trash can be put out at 5 p.m. the night before pickup and the trucks come by on average about 10 a.m. the next morning. (Sometimes they come much later.)

With the twice-a-week schedule, trash will sit on the sidewalk only 20 percent of the time. While that is still as much as 34 hours a week, it’s better than no change. We should see an improvement, if not perfection, in cleanliness and a reduction in the number of rats chewing on discarded chicken bones.

The chicken bones are still part of the problem. A major composting program, such as San Francisco offers, could help with the rat problem, but it doesn’t look as if Boston will get that soon. We won’t get same day pickup yet either. Restricting the hours trash could sit on the sidewalk from 6 or 7 a.m. with a pickup after 10 a.m. would dramatically reduce rat opportunity, not only with a shortened time span but also eliminating over night, when the rats are the most active.

But we’ll take this interim step. It will take a few weeks for residents to learn the new schedule. Nevertheless, I’m expecting a cleaner Boston after July 1.

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