Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Trash cans for a better Baltimore

Few items can elicit heated debates like trash in the city can. Baltimore is usually considered a pretty dirty city when it comes to trash blowing around, all efforts for a "greener and cleaner" city notwithstanding. In many ways trash is an indicator for some of the many pathologies that plague Baltimore from abandonment to drug abuse and poverty. Dan Rodricks recently advocated for another "keep your city clean" campaign.
Baltimore gets new trash cans. Summer 2016
The city — the whole region, really — needs a new campaign to get people to stop littering. That message was common 50 years ago, but it has lost steam since then and virtually disappeared from the public consciousness. (Dan Rodricks)
Today's SUN article about the success of Baltimore's $9 million trash can project comes as a welcome relief, anecdotal as it may be. One big central action that made a difference. As one of the major programs of 2016, previous Mayor Rawlings Blake had distributed 170,000 big green rolling trash cans to Baltimore households and made their use mandatory. As the SUN article repeats, there were plenty folks who didn't like the program for its cost, its logistics or for the difficulty of managing the big containers in a small rowhouse. The hand-wringing was typical, as it is for pretty much any program that anybody resolves to do around here, even if it only repeats what has been a long proven practice elsewhere.  Such as trash cans. Or red line cameras, or protected bikeways.
Trash in bags makes the City filsthy

The usual argument against adopting best practices or acting as if they were brand-new ideas is that Baltimore is different. More likely the issue is just an unwillingness to accept change or look beyond the own borders for a solution. In the case of those standardized trash cans, the advantage of not placing trash in plastic bags, boxes or random containers out on collection day seems obvious. With a sturdy can neither wind nor beast can drag the trash through the alleys and streets. With a sturdy can that gets lifted into the back of a truck it is also much less likely that trash gets dropped, forgotten or dropped out of the bottom of ripped bags.
I don't know, but I simply love these trash cans. One of the best things city government has done for us in the 13 years I have lived in Baltimore (Richard Chambers, attorney)
Many cities have discovered those advantages for decades. In the case of my hometown, the town implemented mandatory standardized trash cans more than half a century ago sametime around 1963. Then the cans were out of steel, had no wheels and were very heavy. I was in charge of taking the family trash can out to the curb and it was a pretty long hike to get there. The bins for the two family house in the city sat in the basement. Like in Baltimore the cans are now made from plastic and they have wheels.   I never saw a rat even though I lived right in the city, I never saw anybody put their trash into anything but the cans and the sanitation workers wouldn't have taken it anyway.
Baltimore trash truck with lift
I had to lug it up the stairs, out the front door, down the front steps and about a 100' yards to a place to where the truck could back up to. I hated the system. The trash men loved it: they didn't have to pick the cans up any longer but hooked them to a a steel arm at the back of the truck which lifted the can and turned it upside down into an opening just the size of the can. The operator could rattle the can with this mechanism so it would empty properly, lower it and unhook it. Two workers could do two cans at once.  This type system is still in place all over Europe.
Baltimore trash cans reporting for duty (Bluewater Baltimore)

So now here we are in 2017, Baltimore has completed the issuance of the 170,000 chip coded green cans of which 2,000 have already been stolen or lost. Not a huge number if expressed in % but still a significant loss. Hard to imagine where these all went. China, Mexico?

People are generally convinced that the program is successful in cleaning up the alleys, no matter that storing the clunky containers has become a headache for those in rowhouses that do not back up to an alley through which a truck can go. It would be interesting to find out if there was even an uptick in the amount of trash picked up. Can CitiStat answer that?

It will be important to keep the green can program alive, have replacements and cans for new residents at hand and set aside the funds to make this pick-up system sustainable. If this was just a one time effort, the $9 million were wasted. In fact, the collection method should be expanded to recycling which should also happen in closed containers (instead of those open yellow bins) so that all the paper, plastic and aluminum cans don't blow around in alleys either.
European trash truck with lift

Denver trash can brochure
Now after we implemented this best practice that has been proven successful elsewhere, along with parking kiosks and bike-share, why stop there? Mayor Pugh is working with Bloomberg's consultants to identify best practices and innovation across the country so it can be brought to Baltimore. Lets re-install our red traffic camera program to monitor excessive speeds and red light running, lets install an electronic guide system that shows folks entering downtown by car where  parking garages with available spaces are, let's be creative with a district for autonomous vehicles. The MTA should introduce cash-free transit like London has implemented for many years already. Once we are open to adopting best practices, the City might become so attractive that people just won't litter anymore because they are so proud of the place.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Bluewater Baltimore about the trash can success
NextCity about a Dallas trash app
Denver curbside collection rules