Mattresses, ripped up furniture, piles of construction debris and scattered auto parts. In some working-class St. Louis neighborhoods, they’re often seen strewn across alleys and the backyards of vacant buildings.
Illegal garbage dumping has been a problem for decades in the Dutchtown and Walnut Park East neighborhoods. Recently, residents and community organizers have been trying to raise awareness of the issue through community workshops and events. Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office also launched the Clean Up St. Louis initiative this year to clean the most littered parts of the city and increase surveillance of illegal dumping.
Community organizers want the city to do a better job of enforcing laws and tracking down culprits responsible for illegal dumping. But they doubt that clean-up events and increased surveillance will be enough to prevent illegal dumping from happening. While there is little data on the source of the reported litter, residents and city officials say that much of the dumping comes from people outside of the neighborhoods.
“These illegal dumpers are making the choice to dump in our neighborhoods because I feel as if they don't see the value in our neighborhood,” said Sunni Hutton, community development manager for the nonprofit group Dutchtown South Community Corporation.
Hutton, a Dutchtown resident, runs a public-awareness campaign called, “So Fresh, So Clean, So Creative Southside St. Louis.” Funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, the program aims to reduce trash by educating residents on how to report cases of illegal dumping. It holds workshops on proper waste disposal and funds public art projects that reuse trash.
St. Louis city residents can file complaints about illegally dumped trash to the Citizens’ Service Bureau. Then, the city’s Refuse Division removes the trash — but for heavy items, the Forestry Division steps in to cart it away. In 2017, the Citizens’ Service Bureau received 549 complaints from Dutchtown residents about illegal dumping, placing it third behind Wells Goodfellow and Walnut Park East.
“I would say that I hear from residents almost daily regarding dumping,” said Alderwoman Cara Spencer, who represents the 20th ward, which includes a portion of Dutchtown. “We are not doing a very adequate job enforcing our laws as it relates to putting your garbage where it belongs. And that really fosters an environment of just putting garbage everywhere.”
If someone is caught illegally dumping trash, the city will fine that person $500 and require them to complete 40 hours of community service. Since construction debris and discarded furniture are among the most common types of trash, officials and residents point to people who rehab buildings as major contributors to illegal dumping.
“It's people trying to avoid landfill costs trying to save a buck,” said Todd Waelterman, director of operations for the mayor’s office. “There's a lot of these people are making money doing remodel jobs. Rather than driving to a legitimate landfill and spending 100 bucks into a dump, they're throwing it out in our lots.”
Waelterman oversees Mayor Krewson’s Clean Up St. Louis initiative. The project organizes major clean up
events, called “block blitzes,” to target the dirtiest blocks of the city. Part of the project also involved installing 100 infrared cameras in alleys to help identify who is responsible for dumping. Fourteen officers from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, known as the Trash Task Force, investigate illegal dumping cases.
But often the culprits aren’t caught, said Sgt. Joe Calabro at the Metropolitan Police Department.
“A lot of times what happens is the officers find that there isn't sufficient evidence, or there isn't a witness,” Calabro said. “We really need the involvement of the citizens. We really need them to come forward and be good witnesses.”
Hutton regularly walks around the Dutchtown neighborhood and tweets photos of trash piles to the Citizens’ Service Bureau’s Twitter page, which she said is a faster way to get the department’s attention. She typically finds garbage dumped in the yards of vacant buildings.
“Sometimes and you come to these homes that are abandoned, there will just be piles of [trash],” Hutton said. “So when people see them, they think maybe that's just the dirt and rocks from the abandoned building. But it isn't. Someone brought their truck out and dumped the whole pile.”
She wants city officials to pay more attention to illegal dumping but says having the Trash Task Force or organizing clean-up events does little to address the cause of illegal dumping. The Dutchtown South Community Corporation is exploring ideas to redesign alleys and potentially install barriers that prevent people from dumping their trash. However, neighborhoods need more economic development and help addressing vacant properties so that it will be clear to outsiders that they are not places to dump.
“If you go to another neighborhood like the Central West End, you don’t see anyone dumping there,” she said. “Because their homes are occupied. There are people actively walking the streets. There are people just there.”
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