JHU Students Tackle City’s Litter And Win Abell Foundation Award

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Winning paper's reseacrh identifued Baltimore's street litter "hot spots" radiate from bus stops, carryout stores, convenience stores and schools.
Kelley and Ambikapathi’s research identified street litter “hot spots” that radiate from bus stops, carryout stores, convenience stores and schools.


What happens when two Johns Hopkins’ PhD candidates put their brilliant minds to finding solutions for Baltimore’s litter problem? An award-winning research paper identifying Baltimore’s “litter hot spots” and new ideas on how to reduce street litter.

Chris Kelley and Ramya Ambikapathi, both JHU doctoral candidates, won the 2016 Abell Award in Urban Policy. Their research paper, Litter-Free Baltimore: A trash collection policy framework based on spatial analysis and social media, tackled Baltimore’s ongoing street litter issue. The Abell Award in Urban Policy challenges Baltimore-area college and university students to analyze issues facing Baltimore and to develop smart and cost-effective solutions.

Using available data from 311 calls, surveys, interviews, and on-the-ground observation, Kelley and Ambikapathi developed a spatial analysis that revealed city street litter is concentrated around food carryout stores, bus stops, schools and convenience stores.

Based on this “spatial association,” Ambikapathi and Kelley were able to map Baltimore’s “litter hotspots” and pinpoint key areas for trash intervention strategies.  These dense trash zones tend to be in Baltimore’s food deserts where citizens may rely on to-go foods eaten outside of the home that have, as author Chris Kelley, a PhD Candidate in JHU’s Department of Geography & Environmental Engineering put it, “higher packaging per meal than if food was cooked at home.”

Current 10.5 gallon street cans don’t hold many styrofoam containers. Baltimore’s litter issue may also be an infrastructure issue.

Digging deeper into Baltimore’s litter hot spots, the team suggests a key reason for the unsightly litter is that there aren’t enough street trash cans in litter hot-spots. Also, the team found that available trash cans are too small and uncovered allowing trash to fly out in the wind. The 2016 Urban Policy student research also suggests that street trash cans aren’t ideally-spaced to promote use. A legendary “Disneyland Theory” suggests people will travel 30 paces or less to find a trash can. Placing cans near food takeout and convenience stores will improve trash disposal.

Ramya Ambikapathi, a PhD Candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Human Nutrition, explains the winners’ next steps, “we are presenting our paper to student groups to spark further data gathering. We are also meeting with city policy makers and non-profits to share our findings.”

The winning paper’s suggestions:

1. Conduct a city-wide trash can inventory.

2. Conduct trash demand and composition research in an effort to finalize litter hot spot zones.

3. Place plenty of trash street cans near bus stops, schools, carryout and convenience stores.

4. Empty street trash cans on consistent basis.

5. Label publicly-owned trash cans so that citizens can report to 311, or post on social media, which cans are overflowing and need to be emptied.

6. Promote social media use to identify trash hot spots and to promote positive trash-free social norms.

7. Follow the Baltimore Office of Sustainability’s recommendation to not only increase the number of street trash cans, but also to purchase narrow-mouthed lids to prevent dumping.

Laurel Peltier
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    • Thanks for your comment. I had to reply because I think many of us share this sentiment. How can it feel okay to chuck trash into the street? The social norm needs to change and social media campaigns may help with that by setting clear expectations of what’s cool and not cool. One of the recommendations in this study is to better understand if street litter is due to not enough cans (seems like it is bc of the analysis) and how much is due to rude people not caring. I personally confront people and strangely, they are so embarrassed when I politely say that the cig. butts go in trash cans, or that can goes in the trash. Strange how people are embarrassed after they’re busted. Only once did someone flip on me, and I said the trash karma fairy was about to thwack them on the head. I hope she did. But, I’m hopeful that street sweeping, new trash cans, and maybe acting on this report’s info will reduce the litter.

  1. This is amazing and much needed. Finally. Although, I’m pretty sure it’s public knowledge that those hotspot areas are a problem for every major US city.

    What is taking Baltimore so long to get up to speed? San Francisco’s trashcans will have wifi before we even dream of getting new ones, and we desperately need smarter trash cans and more of them please! Let’s follow this excellent plan to the T.

  2. As an additional suggestion, institute a city wide PR campaign on the reasons a civilized society does not litter and how it impacts are far and wide. Also, begin educating the issues of littering to school age children and indoctrinated a no littering mindset into their value system. One more thing, there needs to be consequences for littering. Littering is unacceptable and should not be tolerated regardless of ones social status or income.

  3. There is a group of volunteers who pickup trash on a monthly basis ( it could he done every day!) in the Govans area along York Rd. A fellow volunteer once asked a litterbug why they threw their trash on the ground. They replied that it allowed someone to have a job. Sad! We need to change the mindset. More trash cans that are emptied on a regular basis would also help.

    • Deb- Please thank your volunteers. I’ve seen them working and what positive energy. I’m with you, I just don’t get why some people trash their own space. I’ll stay in touch with the winners and see if any of the ideas make into DPW. Ramya and Chris were inspiring, they really want to see if these ideas can gain traction with Baltimore. Smart, motivated and making a difference. Happy summer.

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