Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Parks are experimenting with removing waste receptacles altogether.
On the shore of Ocean Beach, in San Francisco, you’re likely to see sand dollars, swarms of squishy purple Velella velella, and surfers rising and falling on the Pacific Ocean waves. What you won’t see is a trash can.
Earlier this month, the National Park Service plucked most of the garbage receptacles from the beach as part of an experiment to see whether the lack of trash cans would inspire guests to take their cast-offs with them, SF Gate reported.
Some beachgoers complained that they didn’t want to haul soggy napkins or crumpled soda cans home with them. The lack of waste containers also presents some, er, sticky logistical challenges for guests who may have to ferry around a baggie of dog poop or a soiled diaper. SF Weekly didn’t mince words on Twitter:
A few outlets, among them SFist, reported that with the cans gone, visitors just made little towers of trash in their stead.
But the Richmond District Blog posted a defense of the project from an NPS representative, who wrote in an email:
“We are hoping to save staff time and allow them to focus on other high impact areas … Not to mention how nice the historic sea wall looks without trash cans.”
And Adrienne Freeman, a public affairs representative for the Golden Gate National Recreation area, assured the San Francisco Chronicle that, “If trash really starts to accumulate, we are going to put the trash cans back.” Freeman noted that people were starting to take more “personal responsibility,” adding, “We are seeing a cleaner beach.”
Campaigns for cleaner parks
Though it’s tempting to think of parks as purely sweeping, granite vistas and churning waterfalls, the staffers have to deal with the very tangible—and sometimes, gross and smelly—consequences of heavy usage.
Waste management has long presented a problem for national parks. The Green Parks Plan, issued in 2012, mandated that parks explore ways to promote stewardship, capitalize on renewable energy, decrease emissions, and divert garbage. As CityLab reported over the summer, some parks have phased out plastic water bottles as a way to keep thousands of pounds of garbage out of the waste stream.
The George Washington Memorial Parkway—a road linking historic sites throughout Maryland, Virginia, and D.C.—launched an ambitious trash-free program in April 2013 to reduce the 380 tons of solid waste that visitors generated each year. The trash-free program is based on the “carry in, carry out” motto, meaning that anything visitors bring in to the park has to leave with them. Their goal was to cut the amount by 90 percent by the end of 2015.
The initiative has been successful, says Aaron LaRocca, chief of staff for the George Washington Memorial Parkway. He notes particular success in Great Falls Park, which attracts about 700,000 visitors a year. “They’re there primarily to recreate,” says LaRocca. “They bring picnic equipment, recreation equipment, they kind of just hang out there all day.” That offers a lot of opportunities to generate waste.
The key, he thinks, was a robust outreach and education program, which involved posting placards all over the park and supplying small, one-time use bags for personal litter collection. “Of course, there was a learning curve,” says LaRocca. “But it was all about telling the public why we have the trash-free initiative—not just removing the trash cans and expecting everyone to understand.”
New York City has a similar initiative, but in a very different context. Since 2011, the MTA has removed trash cans from 39 station platforms with the aim of decreasing festering garbage and stymying the rats that flock to it. But does it work?
In 2012, the MTA reported a 50- to 67-percent decrease in the amount of trash removed from the stations that were part of the pilot program. This September, though, the office of New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released an audit contradicting those findings. In a statement, DiNapoli slung some zingers:
"It's not clear that it met MTA's goals of improving straphangers' experience and making stations cleaner and there's no evidence it reduced the number of rats in subway stations. After four years the best one can say about this experiment is that it's inconclusive, except for the fact that riders have a harder time finding a trash can."
The MTA issued a statement refuting those claims and voicing its intention to continue the program.
The NPS argues that trash-free parks often lead to better visitor experiences, slashing the pest population, eliminating offensive odors, and freeing up staff to devote more time and resources to different projects. NPS estimates that between 80 and 95 percent of people who visit trash-free parks do dispose of their refuse elsewhere—though they may grumble about it.