Garbage daze

Every Labor Day weekend, when the college kids return en masse, the city of Boston gets trashed

By Kimberly Sanfeliz
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2008
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It has all the trappings of a landfill: tables with missing legs, couches stickered with warnings of potential bed bugs, broken-down moving boxes, and, of course, trash bags and bundles and boxes overflowing and untied.

But it's not a dump. It's the landscape of the city streets this weekend, as thousands of movers - mostly students - descend on Boston.

And with the movers come the police details, the traffic, the trash trucks, and the sanitation workers rushing to clear the streets for the residents who call the neighborhoods - especially Allston, Brighton, Fenway, Mission Hill, and Beacon Hill - home.

It is a huge job that requires extra manpower, extra trucks, and extra hours from the city's trash crews, who work overtime and schedule weekend pickups in an attempt to keep sidewalks passable and residents pleased.

It is, according to City Councilor Michael Ross, who represents Mission Hill, Fenway, and parts of Allston, a tough job.

"Anyone who believes our public works department is inefficient should go out there," said Ross, who has been out on the streets during move-in weekend for the past several years. "These guys are killing themselves."

Move-in weekend, typically the four-day period beginning the Friday before Labor Day, has a long history in Boston, due to the influx of college students who return every year during the first week of September.

According to data collected by the city clerk's office, there were 62,861 full- and part-time students living on and off campus in Boston during the spring semester. Though no statistics were available from the Greater Boston Real Estate Board or the city to determine how many keys are changing hands this weekend, anyone who steps outside will see the effects.

Cambridge, with its own cluster of universities, also sees a population bulge during the weekend, according to Ini Tomeu, the city's public information officer.

"We know it's a busier time of year," she said. And though Cambridge hasn't implemented any special programs for move-in weekend, the workloads increase for the public works and transportation departments, said Tomeu, who added that the universities are extremely helpful in keeping the city running smoothly.

Over the past decade, Boston has ramped up efforts to keep neighborhoods functioning and created a contingency plan to handle the huge logistical concerns that arise when so many people arrive all at once.

According to Nikko Mendoza, assistant director of the mayor's office of neighborhood services, city officials meet about a month in advance for a strategy session. The group consists of officials from a half-dozen city agencies, and their subsequent meetings focus on parking, traffic, police details, and apartment inspections.

As part of move-in weekend, officials schedule extra pickups by the city's two contracted trash-removal companies in neighborhoods like Allston and Brighton, where last year 184 tons of trash were removed over the long weekend. In Fenway, Mission Hill, and Beacon Hill, 236 tons were collected from the three neighborhoods combined over the same period.

Though the mayor's press office was unable to provide the average tonnage of trash collected in the five neighborhoods in a normal week, it said at least 100 tons more than usual were removed during move-in weekend.

The city's total cost for collecting trash from those neighborhoods was $52,800 for the same weekend last year.

Because there are no disposal facilities - such as landfills or incinerators - in the city, the trash is taken to a transfer station, where three city-contracted crews take it to disposal facilities in and out of state. The disposal costs totaled about $42,000 for the weekend last year.

Those figures don't include on-campus dorms, whose trash is the responsibility of each college. According to the mayor's press office, universities usually have private contractors dispose of waste, and they're allowed to use large compactors to reduce the volume of trash on their properties.

The pile-up is a nuisance to residents like Rich Johnson, president of the Community Alliance of Mission Hill, who has experienced life in the neighborhood from both sides.

He attended Northeastern University in the '80s and lived in Mission Hill during its years as a growing student neighborhood. When he moved back six years ago, he found a simple way to deal with the trash, students, and loud parties that he said overwhelm his neighborhood this time of year.

"Honestly, I usually go away on Labor Day weekend to avoid it," he said.

Still, Johnson couldn't believe what he saw when he returned from his self-imposed exile last year.

"I was appalled when I pulled back on to my street," he said. "It was terrible; crap everywhere. Everything from furniture to just trash."

The main factor contributing to the volume is the schedule of the moves. Many leases end at midnight on Aug. 31, and new ones begin on Sept. 1 at noon. In an ideal world, tenants would set aside a few days for moving out, but that doesn't always happen, according to James Burke, director of property management at the Hamilton Co.

He said that his group, which manages about 2,000 units in areas such as downtown, Cambridge, and Brighton, tries to stagger the move-in day of its tenants, but still sees 100 to 150 of its units turn over on Sept. 1.

Often, new tenants are moving in as the previous ones are moving out. Or worse, students are awakened on Sept. 1 by new residents holding boxes, a situation that has occurred more than once, according to Ross.

The crunch causes frustration as parents and students carrying mattresses and boxes squeeze past one another on narrow staircases. Many old tenants are forced to make quick decisions based on the room in their moving vans, leaving piles of furniture on the curb. Or, says Ross, they simply toss couches and bags of trash out of windows.

Other times, new residents who find left-behind items may toss them to the curb, along with their own debris of boxes and bubble wrap.

"It's probably 50-50," said Michael Mackan, captain of the Inspectional Services Department's code enforcement officers. "Some people leaving stuff behind, some toss boxes on top of that."

The city has taken a more active approach to trash in the past couple of years, said Mackan, whose 15-person team hits the streets of the busiest neighborhoods, working extra hours to catch violators.

According to ISD data, on Sept. 1 last year, 132 tickets were given out in Brighton. Back Bay residents received 153 violations on Sept. 2, and 95 tickets were dropped on Mission Hill on Sept. 1. Altogether, the city issued 1,564 code-violation tickets over the four-day period last year.

Consider this for comparison: Between April 1 and Aug. 19 of this year, the code enforcement team handed out an average of 113 tickets per day in the entire city of Boston.

The most common move-in violation is the improper storage of more than one cubic yard of trash, said Mackan, which carries a $300 fine. Proper storage means in a rodent-proof plastic barrel or securely tied 30-gallon trash bag made of two-ply plastic. Another common violation is putting the trash out before 5 p.m. on the evening before the scheduled pick-up day. This incurs an initial $25 fine that can be levied for every day the trash is out ahead of schedule.

But the fines often go unpaid. The tickets are hard to enforce, because absentee landlords can be difficult to track down.

Unlike unpaid parking tickets, which can result in the refusal to renew a driver's license or registration, landlords can let trash pile up without any incentive to pay the fines.

"We are trying to educate the landlords through code violation," Mackan said. "But we don't have a lot of authority" to enforce the fines.

As for residents of these temporarily trashy neighborhoods, some will spend the weekend avoiding the junk as it flies down from the windows, spills out of bags, and blankets the streets.

Johnson said it is up to residents to help clear the junk. "I lay down the law on my street," he said. "I take an extra-special interest in my environment in the neighborhood."

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