Walking or driving around Seattle, it’s hard not to notice. It’s in the greenbelts. It’s in the gutters. It’s at bus stops and among planters.
Trash. Litter. Debris of human life.
The average American produces more than four pounds of garbage every day. We throw out wrappers and packaging, as well as our old clothing, our appliances or anything else that doesn’t suit us.
But for folks with homes, we don’t think about it; it goes under the sink or in the garbage bin and then it gets hauled away.
If you don’t have a home, you also don’t have a home for your garbage.
In the city of Seattle, public garbage bins are available around the mixed-use or business areas.
There are no public waste services in residential areas. Neighborhoods or businesses that believe they need additional waste service can apply online for a new can. They won’t get them; the city’s website states that “due to budget constraints, Seattle Public Utilities is not installing additional cans at this time.”
Not that it matters for homeless folks; it’s illegal to use public garbage cans for your own personal trash. The city states that “public garbage and recycling cans are only for pedestrians and shoppers to use.”
But they’re not for people without anywhere else to go.
Years ago, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold created a pilot project to help collect waste from encampments. She called the lack of waste removal a public health issue, which it is. Garbage can spread bacteria, pollute the groundwater and harm wildlife.
The pilot seems to have fallen by the wayside in the wake of former Mayor Ed Murray’s ouster. Now, the Navigation Teams are in charge of removal of trash — but it’s not a preventative, nor a comprehensive measure. And it shows.
Litter is, of course, a problem for our Puget Sound waters. Literal tons of garbage end up in the ocean each year. Businesses may be reducing the waste they hand customers as they walk out the door — like straws — but homelessness remains uniquely wasteful.
It’s difficult to be sustainable when you are reliant on single-serving packages and plastic utensils. Sandwich bags, paper plates and plastic water bottles are ever-present for people who live outside and take their meals at churches and shelters.
A lot of folks blame litter squarely on our homeless neighbors — it’s a favorite complaint of neighborhood groups — but this is an everyone problem. Because the truth is, everyone produces trash. Some of us just have more convenient places to put it.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice.
Read the full April 3 - 9 issue.
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