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March 10, 2010

Talking trash in B'more

In case anyone hasn't been around Baltimore's waterfront lately, the Inner Harbor is frequently awash in floating and submerged trash.   That should be no surprise even to landlubbers, given the litter readily seen in alleys and vacant lots, in street gutters and in the storm drains that ultimately empty into the city's watery heart.

A City Council committee held an "informational hearing" Tuesday on how to reduce the torrents of refuse and debris that flow into the harbor every time it rains. It quickly broadened into a spirited discussion of illegal trash dumping, uneven enforcement by the city, and a lack of engagement by municipal officials with residents who feel besieged by the blight.

Councilman James B. Kraft, chairman of the judicial and legislative investigations committee, professed himself "very very frustrated" with the lack of progress on the issue despite numerous meetings since a council resolution calling for an inquiry into the harbor's trash problem was introduced in December 2008.   "It feels like we are in some cases going backwards, not forwards," chimed in Councilman William H. Cole IV, chief sponsor of the resolution.

"We're not where we need to be," acknowledged Marcia Collins of the city's Department of Public Works.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially designated Baltimore's harbor "impaired" by trash nearly two years ago, pointed out Phil Lee of the Baltimore Harbor Watershed Association.   Though not traditionally considered a pollutant, the floating debris makes the water uninviting to look at, much less swim in. It's also a carrier of some of the bacteria and other pollutants making the water unsafe for human contact.  As a result, the city will face increasing legal pressure from state and federal government to clean the harbor up.

Where does all the floating waste come from?  According to a report given to the council Tuesday, more than 300,000 pounds of trash and debris were collected in just eight months in 2008 from the Jones Falls where it flows into the harbor.  A little more than half of it was "natural" -- leaves, tree and bush branches and other plant material.   The rest was decidedly man-made - an estimated 189,000 plastic bottles, 160,000 foam cups and 58,000 grocery bags, among other things. 

(That last raises a question about whether plastic carryout bags are one of the harbor's primary litter problems. Kraft's council committee has been mulling various legislative efforts to reduce litter by discouraging stores from giving away disposable paper and plastic bags for holding their merchandise whenever shoppers make a purchase.

But the most frequently seen litter in the Jones Falls, it seems, are cigarette butts.  More than 1 million were plucked from mounds of trash collected at the stream's mouth.  Maybe the council should look closer at smoking in public?  Maybe require outdoor ashtrays at bars, office buildings and other places where smokers congregate outdoors these days to get their nicotine fix, since indoor smoking is largely banned?)

Trash booms and collectors have been posted at a few of the larger storm-water outfalls that flush into the harbor.  There are plans afoot to deploy more trash nets and booms, a multi-million-dollar capital expenditure the city can ill afford in its current anemic fiscal condition.

But some of the residents who came downtown for Tuesday's hearing suggested the litter cleanup needs to start in neighborhoods far from the waterfront.   City officials need to work more cooperatively with residents, they said, rather than merely fine them whenever they put their trash or recyclables out in the wrong container, wrong day or wrong place.

Representatives of the Baltimore Harbor Watershed Association displayed maps showing red dots sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods inland from harborfront Canton where residents say there's illegal dumping and storm drains jammed with trash.  They showed photos of trash bags and debris piled in vacant lots, which they say have gone uncollected for a week or more after residents call to report them.

"We need to change things - boldly, radically change things," said Dr. Ray Bahr, a retired cardiologist and Canton resident. Residents who feel ignored and abused have given up on calling the city's 311 hotline to report problems, he said.

"The Inner Harbor is not going to be clean if we do not get the city clean," warned Russell Stewart, of East Baltimore, who echoed Bahr's comment about city unresponsiveness to residents calling in complaints about illegal dumping. "If you do not win the community over, you can forget it,'' he added.  "You'll be wasting your time and money."

There was debate about whether the bulk of the litter is home-grown or imported.  Some suggested irresponsible contractors, commuters and landlords were to blame for much of the debris dumped in streets, alleys and vacant lots.  Drug dealers also, apparently.  But others pointed to renters for a lot of the trash.  Even well-intentioned residents got fingered, for sweeping refuse from their walks into gutters and storm drains. 

"Somewhere along the line, we've got to stop this Catch 22 and do something,'' said Bahr.

Kraft said he and other council members would consult with a selection of residents and other stakeholders to draw up new regulations or legislation to tackle the problem.  The committee plans another, final hearing on harbor trash July 6. 

(Baltimore Sun file photos by Amy Davis, Jed Kirschbaum and Steve Ruark)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:00 AM | | Comments (18)


It certainly doesn't help the situation when the City removes trashcans from neighborhoods. Their reason in this instance was that they found evidence of "residential trash". So now our streets and sidewalks are full of trash from passerbys because there are no trash cans.

How do we reduce trash in the city government?

What short memeories! Did not the city dump truckloads of snow into the inner harbor? This was snow scooped up from the highways and byways of baltimore City.

Remember this the next time some "knowitall" blames agriculture on the eastern shore for polluting the bay. Remember, all this garbage goes into the Chesapeake Bay.

I know where at least half of the cigarette butts are coming from--from smokers flicking them out of their car windows onto the streets, which then get washed into the storm water drains and into the harbor. Ever been stopped at a light and looked to your left at the median? Try it, you'll see what I mean.

View the Midway photos here, if you think trash does not have an effect:

I bet if people would get cash for their recycled plastic, aluminum, and glass the amonut of pollutants washing into the bay would be reduced. Follow DE, NY, and MI lead. $.05 per recyclable.

I see thousands of drivers (and passengers) a year throw cigarette butts, fast food trash, etc. out the window - while driving, stopped at a light, or parked. I've seen people dump whole ashtrays full of butts and then give me a dirty look for staring at them!

Bus stops that look like land fills (with a half empty trash can near by. I guess 4 feet is to far to walk to throw out trash)

All of this trash ends up in the storm drains and then the bay!

The city needs to take action, but not all the blame.

Wake up people! and slap your neighbor to your left (or right)
The government is NOT here to clean up YOUR mess. Take some responsibility for your actions.

Out of sight, out of mind...
Until you get a hefty fine!

Fines and / or community service should be handed out.

I will not soon forget one special occasion doing my civic duty and reporting at the downtown courthouse for jury duty. During my brisk walk in the cold November air, I spotted a young girl stoop over and pick up an empty plastic bottle. "How nice" I thought, until she purposefully shoved the bottle into a sewer drain. Hmmm.... Might take quite a bit of work to change the culture in certain parts of Baltimore.

I cannot believe that the City Council of Baltimore, with all of its warts and needs has the time to waste forming a committee to study trash in the harbor! Isn't that what the sanitation department is for? Here's an answer....Give tickets to people that litter (ANYWHERE!) and mandate that they attend regularly scheduled Saturday clean-up details at the harbor outflows.
Let's move on...

Why not keep it simple, and go back to Basics: 1. Prohibit Fast Food Vendors using "Throw Away" food wrappers, Bags, and drink containers; 2. Prohibit Convenience Stores using "Throw Away" food wrappers, Bags, and drink containers; 3. Prohibit Direct Marketing Items like "Throw Away" Newspapers, Circulars, and Junk Mail; 4. Prohibit Food Markets and Dept Stores using "Throw Away" food wrappers, "Throw Away" Bags, and Plastic drink containers

Who counts 58,000 trash bags out of a pile of trash give us a break.

TW: I believe it was an estimate based on counting a sample of all the stuff collected.

The trash that collects in the harbor is often gawked at by tourists and residents alike. The city may want to place educational plaques at the outflows. Another idea, place a fish tank w/ goldfish in 2nd grade classrooms and purposely pollute them until the fish die. The teacher explains this is the Harbor/Bay and this is what happens when trash and runoff goes down storm drains. I think kids might remember this one.

Trash is both a problem of ignorance and not caring. I frequently see people throwing trash down storm drains, I think these people don't understand.

The city may want to investigate hiring a brigade of litter and dumping enforcement to hand out fines. I theory this could be also be a source of revenue.

Also reinforcing block captains. If just one person on every block picked up trash once a week the problem would be much reduced.

There are things that can be done, that involve citizen responsibility and not just picking up after them.

The photos with this story say it all--or nearly all. The vast majority of this trash by volume, if not also by weight, is plastic bottles. Perhaps it's time for bright yellow recycle bins on street corners next to the public garbage cans. Refund ain't a bad idea either. And how bout using that big glass aquatic showcase (aka aquarium) to do some real education. Last time I was there, the info on conservation and environmental destruction was painfully timid. Sorry, if you don't want to know the truth don't bother visiting.

I am from a group called Pick Up America ( who is tackling this problem head-on. We are a small group of recent college grads who have decided to walk across the country and pick up trash while organizing community events to inspire a transition to a zero-waste culture. We understand that we need big changes in order to combat the many problems plaguing our ability to live sustainably on our planet.

We are starting in Maryland on March 20th and will be coming through Baltimore in mid-April, doing a few big clean ups and events. Check out the website (! Contact me if you are interested in attending a clean up or organizing an event in your area.

Trash in the harbor is a huge problem, but getting the City to look at creative solutions-- even those that are easy to employ and relatively low cost-- is another.

I am on the board of the Baltimore Harbor WATERKEEPER, and I'm also in the stormwater pollution prevention business. In this dual role, I have talked to numerous city officials about the trash problem and getting Baltimore to accept FREE stormwater quality devices in an effort to get them to try things that have worked well all over the US and Canada-- hoping to be a part of the solution here in Baltimore too where I live, work and play. We're not offering any unproven ideas either. BMP, Inc. ( has more than 40,000 installations of our SNOUT vented hood stopping the very same pollutants we are concerned about here, such as floatable trash, debris and oils. There is even an accessory that helps reduce bacteria, the Bio-Skirt. We have thousands of installations in Pennsylvania, a few in Maryland, and many others in Washington, DC, just down the road-- even at a demonstration site of the Low Impact Development Center at the DC Navy Yard.

I'm not saying we offer a "silver bullet," there is no such thing. But in Baltimore, where a retrofit would be very easy to do in many cases, and with a trash problem that is among the worst I've ever seen, I can't even give my product away for free! I've had casual meetings with city staff, but it never gets to the folks who can actually implement an idea-- even one that won't cost anything more than perhaps an hour of labor to install. Budget can't be the issue here, so our hope is it's a problem we can rectify with the new administration. Our phones and email (contact info on the website) are in fine working order. I know, because the rest of the US seems to be able to reach us every day-- hopefully somebody from our city will be checking in soon too...

Perhaps what is important here is that the "push to change" is coming from the residents in the Harris Creek Watershed (246) that starts in Clifton Park abd travels to Canton through 17 City Neighborhoods.The Interceptor for this Watershed is located in Canton and currently collects 5 Tons of Trash each month. The Harris Creek Watershed Project aimes to significantly reduce this amount of Trash by engaging the Citizens. We recently completed a Survey of 400 Watershed (246) residents and the results listed Trash as their Number One Concern,but most importantly stated that Illegal Trash Dumping on their Vacant Lots was the major source of this Trash. We are in the process of working more closely with the Code Enforcement Officers of the City Housing Department to aggressively attack this Problem.Correcting this Injustice will go a long way in getting Citizen's participation in implementing stormwater best management practices and ensuring Sustainability in the Harris Creek Watershed Project. If anyone is interested in this Project,we are meeting with the 17 Neighborhoods in the 246 Watershed on Wednesday April 21 from 6:30-8:30 PM at the Community Center 901 N.Milton Ave to update our Progress. Ray Bahr MD Coordinator of the Harris Creek Watershed Project BHWA

Polluted stormwater runoffs in Baltimore is indeed alarming and it's good that the local officials have acted on this. Environmental issues are never to be taken for granted for it affects the much larger aspect of living. Applying various stormwater best management practices is distinctly crucial in attaining good control on stormwater for a sustainable environment. There has been a lot of stormwater solutions provided by both the government and the private sector then and now but we must be very cautious on which gives the most economical, environmental and socially relevant solutions. As citizens, we should be utmost and automatically concerned about the future of our nature.

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About the bloggers
Tim WheelerTim Wheeler reports on the environment and Chesapeake Bay. A native of West Virginia, he has focused mainly on Maryland's environment since moving here in 1983. Along the way, he's crewed aboard a skipjack in the bay, canoed under city streets up the Jones Fall from the Inner Harbor, and gone deep underground in a western Maryland coal mine. He loves seafood, rambles in the country and good stories. He hopes to share some here.

Contributor Christy Zuccarini has been blogging about the local DIY craft scene for a year for She brings her pespective on all things handmade to B'More Green, where she will highlight projects you can do yourself as well as crafters who are integrating sustainable methods and materials.

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