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When trash intersects with injustice

Baltimore City manages trash accumulation through fragmented processes — all of which promote and exacerbate inequality within the city.

Photo by Paul Sableman

Like many urban residents, city parks have provided me with respite during the languid summer months of the pandemic. Mount Vernon Place, a park just a few blocks away from my apartment in Baltimore, is now filled with people working, playing, and picnicking. As a social scientist interested in how residents use and care for public green spaces, I’ve been delighted with the sudden influx of people using city parks. Yet, like all facets of the pandemic, the increasing use of green space reveals how segregation is built into all aspects of public life.

Let us for a moment consider the issue of trash – the increasing amounts of it in parks, as well as the labor required to remove it.

If local icon John Waters is the ‘Pope of Trash’, Baltimore is the ordained home of his papacy. Cities experiencing a profusion of litter in their parks or municipal cans for the first time ought to look at Baltimore — where residents have made an uncomfortable peace with trash — for some cautions about how not to equitably manage public services in the face of COVID-19.

The accumulation of trash often follows existing patterns of injustice and segregation. My neighborhood of Mount Vernon is a part of a Community Benefits District where homeowners pay a surcharge on property taxes to support increased services. This surcharge supports a crew of workers that sweep streets, clean storm drains, and empty trash cans. This dedicated workforce means that public trash cans in my neighborhood are still emptied regularly.

Yet, if you leave center city —what public health scholar Dr. Lawrence Brown has termed the “White L” — and travel into the “Black Butterfly” to the east and west, litter increases while the quality of green spaces decreases. Residents in the “Black Butterfly” may have access to parks — but “access” says nothing about the quality or usability of these spaces. Many parks in east and west Baltimore lack lighting, benches, or trash cans. Without the property tax surcharge, residents outside of affluent neighborhoods suffer. Benefits Districts, although effective at neighborhood waste management, look a lot like redlining by a different name.

The Special Services Division within the Bureau of Solid Waste does remove trash from some city parks. For this job, the city uses workers from the Maryland Correctional Institute’s inmate workers program in addition to employees within the Special Services Division. Incarcerated workers are paid between $0.90 and $2.75 per day for this labor. Baltimore is reliant on labor disproportionately performed by Black men receiving paltry wages to keep parks free of trash.

Smaller parks, on the other hand, are often maintained entirely by volunteers, community associations or small nonprofits. In the case of these green spaces, residents will adopt a vacant lot and agree to perform maintenance such as grass mowing, landscaping, and upkeep. Occasionally these spaces feature a community garden or dog park. In other instances, community groups may receive a grant to install green infrastructure, such as a rain garden, that can mitigate contaminants in urban stormwater runoff.

In my research, I conducted interviews with local stewards of green infrastructure. Through these conversations, I learned that trash was a persistent problem. Green infrastructure, like rain gardens or bioswales, functions as a magnet for trash. When rain flows into an inlet, the water carries with it detritus from the street. To keep a rain garden in working order, trash and collected sediment must be removed regularly. One of the largest problems these volunteers face is coordinating trash removal from the site. Green infrastructure rarely sits near a municipally serviced trash can. Many volunteers described how they would carry collected trash and bring it back to their homes in a wheelbarrow for municipal pick up.

Baltimore City manages trash accumulation through these fragmented processes — all of which promote and exacerbate inequality within the city. Access to quality parks and green spaces free of trash is dependent on where you live and the resources of that neighborhood. Furthermore, those who perform maintenance and sanitation labor — whether they be volunteers or incarcerated workers — are notably under-compensated for the vital work of keeping the city clean.

These piecemeal systems pertaining to the care of green spaces have transitioned public concerns into private burdens. If the pandemic has revealed anything, it is that the fissures in our civic infrastructures are cracking at an alarming rate. Baltimore’s approach to trash removal from green spaces makes it clear that cities ought to tread carefully when cutting park maintenance services. The patterns that emerge in that wake of cut services are often deeply unequal. Now is the time to imagine city-systems anew — all while improving our urban environments and the quality of life within them.

amanda phillips de lucas
Urban Ecologist

Amanda K Phillips de Lucas is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Virginia Tech in 2018. Her dissertation examined the history of ‘highway to nowhere’ a remnant of a once imagined, but never completed arterial interstate system in Baltimore, Maryland.

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