Why loose litter covers some streets in Worcester, but not others

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Drive around Worcester and you’ll notice a big disparity: some neighborhoods are lined with trees and others with loose trash.

Candy wrappers, iced tea bottles, face masks and pizza boxes are regularly strewn across the streets, sidewalks and front yards of working-class communities in Worcester. Some locals, like Christina Cambrelen, say they try to pick up trash, but it’s to no avail.

“It always stays the same,” said Cambrelen, who lives in a triple-story apartment in the Bell Hill neighborhood. “It’s disgusting.”

While Worcester’s high-income communities are litter-free, environmental justice experts say the high cost of the city’s mandatory yellow trash bags and a complaints-based cleanup system fuel litter strewn across working-class areas. City officials say they have tried to address the trash problem by funding community cleanups as well as toughening penalties for illegal dumping.

But past efforts have not been enough to keep Worcester’s historically underserved communities clean. Activists and residents of these neighborhoods say the real solution will require the city to overhaul its waste system.

The waste problem stems from a few causes. Much of the debris on the sidewalks is recyclables that have been kicked out of trash cans. Also, many people don’t have their own trash cans, so when they put their trash on the sidewalk on collection day, residents and city officials say it’s easy for raccoons and other animals to open the bags and to dump the garbage.

And then there’s the infamous “pay-as-you-go” system.

Traditionally, cities fund garbage collection through municipal taxes. Many landlords cover this expense or include it in the total cost of rent, so tenants often don’t think about paying for garbage disposal.

But in Worcester, local taxes don’t cover all garbage costs. Residents also pay for garbage services by purchasing special yellow trash bags, which the city sells at grocery stores. If they do not use the yellow bags, the garbage collectors do not collect their waste.

City officials and some environmentalists say the system encourages people to recycle more to avoid buying extra trash bags. That’s part of the reason why other communities have also adopted pay-as-you-go systems — which, according to the state tally, are used in more than a quarter of Massachusetts households.

Yellow bin bags sit on the sidewalk next to a recycling bin on April 12 in the Bell Hill area of ​​Worcester.

Sam Turken / GBH News

Still, a roll of 10 yellow bags in Worcester costs $10, about 40 cents more than a box of 106 regular trash bags sold at Target. Elias Correa, who lives in Vernon Hill, said even if you recycle, the cost of Worcester bags starts to add up for families with children.

“People who don’t have a lot of money – it’s like, ‘Am I going to have the bags or am I going to have milk and bread and stuff like that?’ he said.

Daniel Faber, director of the Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at Northeastern University, said this is a major fairness issue with pay-per-view systems. Like a regressive tax, he said, Worcester’s litter scheme may appear to treat everyone the same, but it’s actually unfair because in wealthier areas residents can afford the yellow bags. . In low-income communities, on the other hand, the high cost of bags incentivizes people to dispose of trash in ways that save money, such as illegal dumping in alleys or on vacant properties.

“You’re a little embarrassed that this is where you live”

It’s hard to overstate the amount of loose trash in some areas of Worcester. Just ask Christina Roberts, nicknamed the “Trash Queen of Worcester” because she spends most of her afternoons picking up trash around the city.

On a recent drive through neighborhoods such as Bell Hill and Main South, Roberts flagged vacant properties with “no dumping” signs. Pieces of plastic hung from the trees and empty soda bottles blew through the streets with the wind.

“It hurts me to see this. Like, it really hurts me,” Roberts said. “The kids in these neighborhoods — that’s all they see.”

A woman in a green sweatshirt holds a plastic cup and other small trash in one hand.
Christina Roberts, known as the ‘Trash Queen of Worcester’ picks up rubbish April 19 on Dewey Street in Worcester.

Sam Turken / GBH News

Environmental justice experts like Faber say the litter is more than an eyesore: Residents are being denied a right guaranteed by the Massachusetts Constitution.

“And that’s living in a healthy, clean environment,” Faber said. “Low-income communities have the same rights as any other community.”

Living in a community with litter issues can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life, he said. There are health effects if garbage attracts rodents and disease-spreading insects. There may also be economic and psychological consequences.

American cities already have a habit of investing more resources in predominantly white areas than in communities of color. Faber said the garbage problem can exacerbate this by creating the feeling that certain areas are not maintained and not worth further investment in infrastructure, parks and local businesses. Residents of these communities may come to believe that their neighborhood is inferior to others.

“You get to the point where you’re somewhat embarrassed that this is where you live,” said Clyde Talley, a reverend of Belmont AME Zion Church and an activist with Black Families Together, a community group that fights racism. systemic in Worcester. . “You don’t have that sense of pride.”

That’s the case in communities like Bell Hill and Vernon Hill, where residents wonder why they live with trash blowing on sidewalks and streets, but residents of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods don’t.

“The areas there are nice and clean, and those are the areas that have the money,” Correa said. “It’s frustrating.”

A complaint-driven process

Worcester Public Works and Parks Commissioner Jay Fink acknowledges that the pay-as-you-go program can be more financially taxing for some people than others. But he said if the city scraps the system or adopts an alternative model that provides a set number of yellow bags for free each month, taxes may need to rise to help fund garbage collection. Therefore, city officials are trying to solve the waste problem in other ways.

Worcester’s Downtown Business Improvement District has a crew of workers who walk around the area picking up trash and removing graffiti. There is also the Worcester Green Corps for high school students to help clean up green spaces and streets, a partnership program of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, the city, the Worcester Community Action Council and United Way of Central Massachusetts,

More recently, city officials changed the ordinances, shortening the time people have to address trash violations on their properties.

“There is often a considerable time lag between the time a breach is reported or discovered and the time the issues [are] effectively resolved, removed, mitigated or cleaned up,” Christopher Spencer, Worcester Inspection Services Commissioner, said in a recent letter to City Council.

One of Worcester’s garbage ordinances previously gave landlords seven days to remove bulk garbage and recyclables from their land once city officials gave them a warning. If a property owner did not meet this deadline, city employees would clean up the property themselves. Now, the ordinance only gives property owners 24 hours to clean up their land and requires them to pay any costs the city incurs for trash removal.

Still, Fink noted that officials often rely on residents to notify the city of loose trash on properties. So if residents don’t complain about the garbage, the city may not know there’s a problem.

Faber said this is another equity issue with Worcester’s trash collection system that helps explain why higher-income communities have fewer trash issues than working-class areas. People who work multiple jobs may not have time to call the city and complain about the litter. Indeed, some Vernon Hill residents told GBH News they didn’t even know how to file a complaint. That’s probably not a problem for people with more resources, said Gina Plata-Nino, a Central Massachusetts legal aid attorney.

“The power dynamics – it’s real,” Plata-Nino said. “People in more affluent neighborhoods…expect to be treated in a certain way.”

Environmental justice advocates said Worcester’s waste system would be fairer if city workers regularly picked up trash in underserved communities, even if residents didn’t file complaints.

Fink said the city plans to do more throughout the spring, in part using street sweepers. He added that there will be outreach efforts to teach residents how to file litter complaints.

However, city workers can’t survey neighborhoods year-round for trash, he said. Worcester can’t afford it.

“You’re talking about significant additional staff to be able to do that,” he said. “Millions of dollars added to the tax roll.”

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