Commentaries Health & Environment

Downtown View: Too Much Trash

Karen is taking a break. This column appeared in December, 2014. Read it for nostalgia because times have changed. Now several downtown neighborhoods enjoy two pick-up days for recycling, which has boosted the recycling rate. Those residents who recycle religiously produce little trash, so the trash pickup days went from three to two in those neighborhoods. It means that trash sits on the sidewalk for less time and the streets are much cleaner. But Boston still faces challenges about keeping clean.


Bostonians complained about it in the 1920s. We still complain about it. It’s so common and yet so difficult to solve. Maybe new Mayor Marty Walsh’s team can put the matter to rest.

We’re talking trash.

Boston is dirty compared to other American and European cities. “We moved into the city nine years ago,” said one resident, “but we have been in Massachusetts for 36 years, and I cannot remember a time when we didn’t think Boston was dirty.”

They only place I’ve been that had more trash strewn about than my home town was Kolkata (Calcutta).

One way to address the problem would be to ask why Boston continues to be dirty, and attack the reasons. I asked some downtown Bostonians—Joan, Jane, Colin and Diane—why they thought we have problems other cities don’t.

Bostonians lack pride in their surroundings, they said. Absentee landlords feel little stake in the community so they eke all the money they can out of their property and don’t convey rules to tenants or clean the sidewalk in front. Students and short-term renters don’t put trash out properly or at the right times. Shopkeepers don’t sweep in front of their businesses. “In European cities shop owners are out every morning cleaning the area in front of their property,” said Jane.

Trash sits too long on the street. Charlestown has pickup only one day a week, but trash is collected in other downtown neighborhoods two or three times a week. On Beacon Hill and in the North End trash can be put out at 5 p.m. and won’t get picked up until after 7 a.m. the next morning. That’s at least 14 hours three times a week that trash bags can be rifled by pickers, torn by rats, and backed over by cars too close to the curb.

Except for the Back Bay and the South End, which have alleys that hold big bins, most of the rest of downtown uses plastic bags. Irresponsible residents don’t use heavy enough bags, so they are easily broken into by vermin or trash pickers, or they blow around.

A dearth of trash bins compounds the problem. Boston is a walking city. Tourists are all over our neighborhoods looking at the sights, but unless they are on a commercial street, they won’t find a bin in which to throw their trash.

This problem occurs in front of some buildings with sidewalk smokers who throw butts on the ground.

Irresponsible dog owners are to blame too. Even if they pick up after their dogs, too many leave the bags in a tree pit for someone else to deal with. Trash bins in the residential neighborhoods would address this problem too.

Surveys about how to solve those problems have been inconclusive. North End residents rejected replacing a trash pickup with a recycling day. On Beacon Hill, two-thirds of the residents felt it would make the neighborhood cleaner, but the Beacon Hill Civic Association board was split 50-50, said civic association president Keeta Gilmore.

Solutions on which neighborhoods agree: Add another day of recycling pickup no matter what. And bins along residential streets would help.

But a real solution in some neighborhoods would be to reduce the hours residents could set trash out in Bay Village, the North End and Beacon Hill to mornings only, between 6 and 9 a.m., when the trash trucks would start their rounds. This would keep trash off the sidewalk at night when the rats are out and would reduce the time trash sits outside to usually less than six hours a day. It would make setting out trash convenient for residents walking to work.

The city renegotiates its contracts with trash haulers in 2014, and a new mayor and his staff could satisfy many residents with such a plan.

Meanwhile, Colin, who has moved back to Boston after many years in other cities, has an outlook that might hearten downtown residents. As bad as the trash problem in Boston is now, he said, Boston is much cleaner than when he lived here before.

Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times 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. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.

4 Replies to “Downtown View: Too Much Trash

  1. The idea of being able to put your trash out between 6-9am is ludacris. There are many professionals in this neighborhood that work overnight shifts what are they to do?

    What about the elderly and disabled? Are we going to give them a 3 hour window to wake up and take trash down flights of stairs?

    ya on trash nights the neighborhood is a little dirty but that’s two days a week for a few hours. And I doubt it’s anything compared to Calcutta India!!

  2. My major argument is the repeat performances of 35 & 84 No. Margin St. & 60 Prince St. These
    buildings put their trash out After the trash has been picked up. These are just a few buildings
    that constantly trash the neighborhood. What this tells me is the FINES can’t be that effective, or
    are they even being fined? The City is extremely lacks when it comes to Trash Issues & it has been
    going on for Far Too Long. I don’t see any City Employees trying to come up with any solutions, and yet
    when I travel to High Tourist Areas they are never as filthy as our own little No. End. Cameras should
    be mandatory for all Landlords to determine the individuals who obviously don’t care or follow the trash
    rules, and let us not forget about those that don’t pick up after their dogs. City living does not have to
    be dirty or noisy, but yet they seem to shove these negative actions down our throats. B.S.

  3. I have been in Boston for 64.3 yrs and I have a speck of OCD
    Boston was always super clean even Chinatown up till about the 80s then it started going down
    I have even seen restaurants on beach street throw there fish swill out in the gutter as early as 5am
    I live on seaport blvd and it’s super clean and I love it but dog owners just will not always pick up their dogs dung
    Start ticketing heavily the perps and landlords and make them accountable for the mess they create by not following the rules and as they do in London give a violation for not picking up there dogs business and raise the fine each time that’s the only thing that will work HEAVY FINES GET CAMERAS…

  4. The problem is the awful bag system itself. It is completely unsuitable for large cities. Most cities I have traveled to use publically available “dumpsters” that residents can put out trash in at any time and are emptied by the city regularly. Evan old San Juan in Puerto Rico is so clean you could eat off the sidewalk. I think is super crowded, super-dense and packed with tourists non-stop, not unlike the North End. As long as we continue to rely on a system that uses individual bags out on on the street, there will be no improvement.

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