A Fine Mess

Under an azure sky, shaded by a blossoming pear tree, a stray sheet of office paper sits atop a heavily trafficked brick sidewalk, sullying a patch of one of Boston's most picturesque neighborhoods. The piece of paper bears a bill from the swank W hotel in New York City's Union Square, and it is addressed to a man from West Newton. Somehow it's made its way here, to the heart of the Charles Street shopping district — but not, notably, into either of the two nearby trash cans. It has become a piece of litter. And to Ken Maclaurin, it might be worth an extra 25 points.

Maclaurin, a software executive by vocation, is spending this idyllic Saturday morning participating in Beacon Hill's annual cleanup. Because this is Beacon Hill, bastion of summer camp patrons and Greek system alumni, this year's event has been enlivened by a scavenger hunt. After grabbing the hotel bill — a candidate for “most obscure” litter — Maclaurin leads his teammates toward the Charles River, where he expects to unearth more unusual booty. “A few years ago, a group of us cleaned up the Esplanade,” he says. “We found a complete, shall we say, bedroom set: leopard-skin bra, panties, mattress, and blankets.”

Dressed like a politician at a county fair — black polo shirt tucked into blue jeans, brown hair parted crisply — Maclaurin works his way along, stopping frequently in front of million-dollar townhouses and reaching underneath luxury cars to snatch refuse. He quickly fills one trash bag (good for five points) and gets started on another, stuffing it with an orange peel, Tupperware lid, parking ticket, TV dinner box, Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup, and assorted candy wrappers. He gingerly lifts a broken bottle overflowing with rainwater and doesn't balk at picking up the carcass of a recently departed rat, which he handles in pooper-scooper style, using the edge of his bag as a makeshift glove.

Near the base of the Arthur Fiedler footbridge, Maclaurin spots an item he'd been tipped off about a few days earlier. “Ah, there's the shoe,” he says, retrieving an orphaned gray sneaker. The item — “strangest piece of clothing” — helps pad Maclaurin's score, but his team can't match the sheer volume amassed by the rival squad. Patrolling the slopes of the hill, Maclaurin's opponents gather enough effluvia to fill 90 large trash bags — a total that accounts for just a fraction of the litter removed from the city this spring.

In April, Mayor Tom Menino announced a new coordinated approach to the ad hoc cleanups community groups have long organized, then turned volunteers loose on the grime left behind by months of covert dumping and interminable snowfalls. Using tools donated by the Public Works Department, they swept alleys in the Back Bay, raked the South End's Victorian squares, and tidied the zigzagging thoroughfares of the North End. They scoured the corners of Dorchester, where the litter sometimes includes trash brought in by suburban scofflaws, and removed rubbish from the streets of Allston, Brighton, and the Fenway even as departing college students emptied two semesters' worth of junk onto the same curbs.

Those efforts culminated last month in “Boston Shines,” a daylong, optimistically titled, citywide purgation carried out by thousands of volunteers and underwritten by corporate sponsors. It was the first of several such sweeps planned before next summer's Democratic National Convention. During the recruitment drive Menino mixed appeals to civic duty with pleas of poverty. “The press the city's budget problems has received has given people a little more reason to want to contribute,” says Michael Kineavy, the mayor's director of neighborhood services.

It also helped that an increasing number of people who live and work in Boston, with its famous historic and cultural sites and scenic vistas, believe it is becoming one of the dirtiest cities in America.

“You go to some cities, you don't see much litter. Here, you do,” says Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. “Part of it is a culture issue. It's similar to jaywalking. In other places, people don't dare walk against the light. In Boston, it's OK.” But other cities — bigger cities including New York, Chicago, and San Diego — also have much more effective systems in place for dealing with their slovenly residents and visitors. As Boston and most of the communities that surround it face some of the nation's highest prices to get rid of their trash, City Hall's solution for refuse that lands in its public spaces seems to consist chiefly of relying on concerned civilians to take care of it. That approach, however well-intentioned, is woefully inadequate. The litter problem is too complex to be solved by community service alone, the gung-ho attitudes exhibited in certain quarters notwithstanding.

“If you travel through the country, you see city employees cleaning the streets. Here, you see citizens doing it,” says Beacon Hill resident Jack Fitzgerald, taking a broom to a grunge-clotted gutter. “It seems to me that something is just fundamentally not working.”

As long as there have been people in Boston, there have been measures to discourage them from littering. In 1634, the city's selectmen passed an ordinance — among the first of its kind, according to Steven Corey, an associate professor of urban studies at Worcester State College — forbidding the disposal of “fish and other garbage” at the municipal dock. Eighteen years later, they barred the throwing of animal entrails onto city streets, a ban subsequently expanded to include all forms of solid waste. Of course, ever since those edicts were enacted, there have been Bostonians who have flouted them, and others who have complained about the reprobates. Since 1968, the job of dealing with both groups has fallen to Joseph Casazza, who has exhibited Alan Greenspan-like staying power as commissioner of Boston's Department of Public Works.

Stocky in build and bulbous of nose, Casazza occupies a spacious office on the seventh floor of City Hall's upside-down labyrinth. When discussing his tenure, he projects an air of aggrieved bemusement: Like a veteran psychologist, cab driver, or cop, he is intimate with human nature's uglier side — and it never ceases to amaze him. “I was listening to one of my guys on the radio as I was coming in this morning. He said, 'Somebody just dumped a pile of garbage here. They just dumped it, right in the street!'” says Casazza. “There are things that happen in this city each and every day that you wouldn't believe. And it's the people themselves that are screwing their neighbors. But that's a dangerous subject for me to get into.”

Of all the litter Casazza contends with each year, the variety that seems to vex him most consists of the bags of household garbage routinely crammed — illegally — into the 1,450 municipal garbage barrels his department maintains. (New York City, which has roughly 13 times as many people, has about 25,000 trash cans, or 17 times as many.) When a trash can is repeatedly abused, Casazza's response has often been to simply take it away, reasoning that this will prevent people from using it improperly. Of course, it also leaves those people who used it for sanctioned purposes to hunt for another — or, succumbing to frustration, throw their refuse on the ground. In addition to helping explain why the city currently has 100 waste bins in storage, the policy has provided fodder for Casazza's critics, who argue that he has grown as ornery and obdurate as an old judge. Lately, however, he has displayed some willingness to innovate. And just in time.

Last year, Casazza signed onto an experiment spearheaded by City Councilor Michael Ross, whose constituents in the Back Bay were complaining about rodents and windblown trash. Residents of Public Alley 417, which runs between Marlborough and Beacon streets from Exeter to Fairfield streets, footed the bill for new “supercans” — sturdy, 96-gallon closable containers that cost about $65 each. The city, in turn, convinced the garbage hauler that covers the area to outfit its trucks with mechanized arms needed to lift the heavy bins. The system (which Chicago provides free to its residents) has gotten positive reviews, and Casazza is considering rolling it out to other parts of the city. “But not now,” he says.

Not now, because right now Boston's strained municipal budget barely covers the basics — and some of them are suffering. Community boards in the South End and Beacon Hill have asked the city to tow illegally parked cars on street-cleaning days; the city, which hasn't been able to persuade the legislature to raise its state-mandated $12 towing fee, has, as a result, started towing at a loss. Of course, the city also issues tickets. But the $25 fine is less than the cost of parking in most garages. Casazza is intrigued by a tactic employed by New York City, which brands offenders with a scarlet letter — actually, an 8½-by-11-inch neon green sticker — that reads: “This vehicle violated New York City traffic rules. As a result, the street could not be properly cleaned. A cleaner New York is up to you.” He has yet to issue a proposal. In the meantime, the cars stay put.

“I'm paying the street sweepers $500 a day” — the exact figure is $528.80 per sweeper — “and he's going down the middle of the street. I've gotta do something about it, there's no question,” says Casazza. But this spring, the commissioner had to do without the temporary workers he's dispatched to particularly grimy spots in prior years. This summer, he won't have the 150 high school students he's used to plug holes while his full-time workers — estimated average age in the low fifties — spend their accrued annual vacation weeks. The city won't have the Boston Youth Clean-up Corps, which has picked up hundreds of thousands of bags of rubbish over the past decade. It's also facing the possibility of further cuts to the so-called “hokey men” (named for the 50-gallon carts they once pushed as they made their rounds) who clean 80 of Boston's busiest districts.

“I didn't have adequate personnel before the budget crisis, and I certainly don't have it now. I'm concerned, but we're going to have to manage around it,” says Casazza, who stresses that, despite the shortfalls, “we're not going to get out of the trash collection and disposal business.” Unfortunately, that business, especially in Massachusetts, is an increasingly costly one.

All day long, from every direction, an odorous tide of trash flows into a large beige warehouse in Somerville. The building, which shares the block with a Mercedes dealership, houses a garbage transfer station operated by Waste Management, one of the three conglomerates that dominate the trash disposal industry in the United States. Inbound garbage trucks from Somerville, Cambridge, and central Boston disgorge their loads on one side of the facility's main building, where a front-end loader with wheels as tall as a man pushes it onto a teetering pile. On the other side, another machine scoops the trash into the tractor-trailers that haul it away. Inevitably, a few pieces go astray, a fact that Waste Management has taken into account. To fend off hungry gulls, the company has strung wires over the transfer station's open yard; the lines interfere with the birds' flight paths, preventing them from swooping in for a feast. The company also employs two men whose sole responsibility is to keep the property (relatively) clean.

The Somerville transfer station charges Boston $81 for every ton of the city's trash it processes; the rest of our refuse is carted to similar facilities in Roxbury, Lynn, and Peabody, where the rates are slightly higher. In all, getting rid of the nearly 7 pounds of trash the average Boston resident generates each day will cost the city $40 million this year, an increase of 35 percent over last year, when its previous contract expired. Other communities face equally steep fees; according to BioCycle magazine's latest “State of Garbage in America” report, Massachusetts' average “tipping fee,” the cost to dispose of a ton of trash at a waste facility, is second only to Vermont's. As with housing, car insurance, and professional sports tickets, we pay more for our garbage than people elsewhere would tolerate. But then, that's how supply and demand works.

The town dump, once an iconic, even cherished aspect of the Yankee way of life, is fast going the way of Dairy Queens and drive-in movie theaters; more than 125 antiquated sites have closed in Massachusetts in the past decade, leaving just 19 landfills and seven incinerators in operation. To dispose of the trash it no longer has room for — an estimated 2 million tons this year, and the total has been climbing steadily — the state ships it across the border, sometimes as far away as South Carolina. The distance that trash travels adds to the state's costs and offsets the environmental benefits achieved by shuttering potentially leaky dumps. (“When you've got diesel trucks driving 600 miles each way — well, you do the math,” says Steve Changaris, northeast regional manager for the National Solid Wastes Management Association.) In an effort to alleviate the capacity crunch, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) lifted a five-year-old moratorium on landfill construction in 2000. The agency is reviewing applications from seven sites that want to expand their capacities, but so far, no new sites have been built. “It's not for a lack of interest on the part of the industry,” says Changaris. “Communities say, 'We don't want it here. Put it somewhere else.'”

By the end of the decade, the DEP hopes to reduce the state's waste production by 70 percent, a highly ambitious and potentially unrealistic goal it has been pursuing through regulations barring items ranging from yard waste to televisions and computer monitors from landfills and incinerators. The DEP has also been encouraging communities to adopt what are known in the trade as “pay-as-you-throw” programs, which charge households based on the amount of garbage they put out for collection or take to the landfill. Thanks to the state's financial difficulties, local politicians are finding that idea increasingly appealing. This month, Natick and Groton join the 103 Massachusetts cities and towns that rely on pay-as-you-throw. Another 30 communities have been weighing whether to sign on. With the exception of Lexington — which, in an only-in-New England moment, had to drop its program when a resident successfully argued in court that the town's charter guaranteed free trash removal — most municipalities have benefited significantly from the strategy. According to Greg Cooper, the DEP's deputy director for consumer programs, the average resident in pay-as-you-throw towns increases the amount he or she recycles by up to 17 percent and cuts his or her overall waste by a quarter. After launching a program two years ago, for example, Brockton saved $1 million.

From a logistical standpoint, implementing pay-as-you-throw in Boston would be difficult, but not impossible; three larger cities, including San Jose and San Francisco, manage to pull off such systems. Considering that Boston's recycling percentage lags in the low teens, and that every extra ton of cans and bottles spared from the transfer stations frees up money for something else (new trash barrels, schoolbooks), the financial incentives are significant. Yet Boston isn't likely to adopt pay-as-you-throw, for the same reason Mitt Romney doesn't drink gin and tonics: The philosophical objections are just too strong.

“I grew up my entire public-works life believing that there are certain basic services that the citizenry of any city are entitled to for their tax dollars. They're entitled to decent roadways and clean sidewalks, and they're entitled to trash collection. Whenever pay-as-you-throw has come along, I've been, and remain, opposed to it,” says Casazza. As it happens, some members of his citizenry, unsatisfied with what they're getting for those tax dollars, are taking matters into their own hands.

Bathed in the glow of an antique streetlight, a stray sheet of paper sits atop a heavily trafficked brick sidewalk — and because this sheet of paper sits in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, it won't sit there for long. For the past three years, property owners in an area of the city's downtown have assessed themselves a self-imposed tax, funneling the revenue into a battalion of “safety ambassadors,” a combination of security guard and tour guide, and about 40 sanitation workers. Their “business improvement district,” as such arrangements are known, also provides a trash hotline. It boasts response times as fast as seven minutes. “Blood, vomit, a refrigerator, you name it,” says Kevin Casey, director of public affairs for the San Diego Downtown Partnership. “We'll pick it up that day.” In New York, the Times Square Business Improvement District bags more than 1,100 tons of garbage annually. In Philadelphia, a business improvement district steam-cleans the sidewalks of Center City every night.

Boston doesn't have any business improvement districts, though merchants in Downtown Crossing have wanted to create one since 1996. In order to do so, the merchants need state legislative approval. But the first time they sought it, the Boston police union, concerned that its patrolmen would lose their jobs to private security guards, engineered the measure's demise. The would-be business improvement district subsequently convinced the union that its employees would merely supplement — not supplant — the city's sworn law enforcement officers, and the two sides reached a compromise. A revised proposal could be voted on later this year.

Meanwhile, several neighborhood organizations are already funding freelance litter patrols. According to Councilor Ross, the residents of Gainsborough Street in the Fenway have hired someone to sweep their stately blocks seven days a week; they've even asked the city to cease its street-sweeping service so they won't have to bother moving their cars. Inhabitants of the bowfront brownstones that line the South End's Union Park have retained a private street cleaner of their own. The chief officers of the local civic association prowl their jurisdiction on foot, picking up litter, photographing the evidence left behind by serial offenders, and leaving polite but firm notes for those caught discarding their trash haphazardly. Beacon Hill's garbage gadflies have done them all one better. They've cajoled the city's Inspectional Services Department into doing their sleuthing for them.

In January, the neighborhood kicked off a pilot program aimed at encouraging residents to wait to put their garbage out until the morning it's picked up, leaving scavengers less time to rummage through it. They were also reminded to use authorized two-ply bags — as opposed to, say, the widely popular open grocery sacks. On May 15, five days after Beacon Hill's spring cleanup, the initiative entered a new phase. Inspectional Services commenced a crackdown on those who ignored those suggestions, invoking the state's sanitary code for justification: It turns out that putting trash on the curb before midnight on collection day is actually against Massachusetts law.

The morning after the enforcement effort began, John Meaney, the department's chief inspector, set out to see how well it was working. Meaney was wearing khakis, a purple shirt paired with a patterned purple tie, and a gray jacket. His brown hair was styled in a spiky buzzcut, and his skin was darkened by an impressive spring tan. He looked like a detective in a Jerry Bruckheimer film.

After issuing two property owners warnings ordering them to clean up their offending trash within 24 hours, Meaney rendezvoused with code enforcement officer Michael O'Keefe, who was walking his beat in the area. Like all of the 16 code enforcement officers under Meaney's charge, O'Keefe had on a standard-issue navy blue law enforcement uniform. Unlike New York City's sanitation police, he wasn't carrying a sidearm.

While crossing a narrow side street, the two men spied an illicit garbage bag leaning on a building near the far corner. They moved in for a closer look. O'Keefe snapped on a pair of rubber gloves and got down to work.

Hardened litterbugs have been known to remove any papers bearing their names before illegally dumping bags of trash. Some even insert nasty notes for the inspectors. But this turned out to be an easy case. Within seconds, O'Keefe had his hands on a utility bill addressed to the apparent perpetrator. He checked the name against a row of mailboxes hanging next to the door. He had a match.

“Gotcha!” said Meaney.

“Before we started this pilot program, I was writing 25, 30 of these a week,” said O'Keefe, filling out a $25 citation. “Now it's down to 7 to 10.”

“We're out here talking to people, slapping them with tickets,” said Meaney. “And it's getting better.”