Waste and the City

Waste and the City: What I learned while picking up trash

What started as a mindless stroll on social media ended on a post featuring smiling people – it was Instagram, after all – proudly showcasing bags of trash they had just collected. That is how I learned about “Pittsburgh Street Stewards” (@pghstreetstewards) and how I started picking up trash myself…

The rules are simple: Pick up trash abandoned in the streets, take photos of your efforts, and share them on social media. You can even adopt a block.

I was motivated because I like collecting stuff and because I hate the thought that the trash hurts our oft-challenged neighborhood animals.  Also, there is something relaxing about undertaking simple tasks like collecting garbage after a long day. Really!

Trash is often found at intersections with traffic lights and at bus stops. People get bored as they wait and they often throw away bottles, cups, and empty packs of cigarettes. In residential areas, a lot of trash falls out of trash cans before or during collection.  Areas with off-street parking are often littered with PPE, pens, notepads, fast-food containers, and stuff that falls “accidentally” out of cars. Near hospitals and nursing homes, you will find piles of cigarette butts next to benches where exhausted nurses take a break.

As an architect, I think of how homes and cities could be designed differently, so that less trash would end up in the streets. 

Here are some ideas: The first step would be to implement a “circular economy” and eliminate mono-use products.

Second, bio-plastics should replace non-biodegradable plastics. Then, we should begin to design homes with integrated compaction systems and gardens that allow for composting without attracting wild animals. As well, offices and institutional buildings should be designed in the future with employees in mind, addressing their needs and offering dedicated places for respite and “recharging”. 

At a neighborhood level, we could create smaller collection sites where people could actively bring waste – a system implemented in Europe for decades – so that trash bins don’t have to sit on the curb for a week if collection day is missed. At a city level, we could introduce pneumatic waste collection systems that use vacuum suction to empty garbage bins through an underground network. Last but not least, while we cannot do much about people that will litter for the sake of littering, a future with more self-driving cars may mean a smoother driving experience, reducing traffic jams and giving people less excuses for throwing stuff out of the window. 

The only thing I don’t like about picking up trash in the street is that, technically speaking, I am creating more landfill waste. This said, the time I spend picking up trash ends up being a time for reflection and even design thinking. It is also a personal statement – and a good reason to take a selfie! 

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