Cleaning Up the Beach by Taking Away Trash Cans

Experiments in San Francisco and New York aim to get people to ‘pack in and out’ their garbage.
(Photo: Zachary Slobig)
Dec 2, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

Melinda Chang often walks south on Ocean Beach—the three-mile stretch of sand on the western edge of San Francisco—wearing a broad sun hat, lots of sunscreen, and a small backpack crammed with dog poop. She walks dogs for a living, and since late October, when seaside trash cans vanished, her waste disposal habits have changed.

“I take the poop with me,” she said, pointing to her backpack. “But it’s a pain. When I go to my second route, usually I can throw it away there.”

The National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over Ocean Beach and the rest of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, recently embarked on a curious litter abatement and behavior modification experiment—it removed all trash cans from the far north end of the area and replaced them with new signage. “We are hoping that park visitors will pack out what they pack in,” the signs read. “Please be patient while we try this out.” Soon, signs with more of a call-to-action tone were added: “Please Help Keep Your Park Clean! Pack In and Out Trash.”

Primarily, it’s a labor-saving effort by the National Park Service: Fewer trash cans, officials say, means dramatically less garbage removal, allowing maintenance crews to focus on other tasks. Maybe, though, over time, visitors will readjust their trash-generating habits and leave a lighter footprint.

(Photo: Zachary Slobig)

Even Chang, who appears heroically cooperative with the new policy, has doubts. “It’s definitely a dumb idea,” she says, and the local media coverage has echoed that sentiment, for the most part. But wouldn’t we all be better off if people retrained themselves (or were prodded) to not rely so heavily on public infrastructure to make our trash vanish? Isn’t it possible that designating a “trash-free space” could reshape social norms and keep litter off the ground? After all, the "leave no trace" wilderness ethic is a darned good idea that should be adopted in any public space, right?

Well, it’s all a little more complicated than that, say Karen Spehr and Rob Curnow, a pair of community psychologists and the authors of a new book, Litterology: Understanding Littering and the Secrets to Clean Public Places. They’ve looked closely at the factors that influence behavior around how, where, and when we chuck our trash, and they work with Keep America Beautiful and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris programs.

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“The key is to make expectations really clear,” said Spehr. “At every opportunity, communicate with people before they even get to that place. If people are cued along the way in a respectful manner, then they’re much more likely to respond.” It seems the park service at Ocean Beach did the bare minimum in terms of proactive outreach and education—it simply took away the cans and put up a handful of signs.

“This was a good time of year to start off slowly,” said Dan Collman, facilities manager with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “It won’t give us a complete picture, nothing at all like the busiest summer day, but there’s no evidence that there’s more trash. All in all, the trash accumulating is the same.”

In most public places, there’s an unstated understanding that visitors will put their trash in a designated can. “They provide us with the facilities to do the right thing,” said Curnow. “That’s the creation of a social compact.” No cans—or “binfrastructure,” as Curnow and Spehr call it—no compact. The abrupt removal of trash cans through this lens is an unfair and unreasonable shift of responsibility, they say.

Two recent visitors to Ocean Beach agreed. “It’s difficult if you’re at the beach with your family to take all your trash home with you,” said John Haynes. “That’s why there’s receptacles. Society has trained us to put our trash in these containers.” His friend Carl McAfee said, “If you want to keep your parks clean, why don’t you help us with the system you put in place?” Another beachgoer—with a fistful of litter he had collected on his walk—suggested a biodegradable bag dispenser with a message like “Courtesy of the National Park Service: Take your own trash home.”

Meanwhile, in the New York City subway system, a similar experiment has begun to provide data that Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials say is promising. In 2011, they removed garbage cans from two stations—one in Manhattan and another in Queens—with the aim of decreasing the volume of trash hauled out. They’ve broadened that pilot program to 39 stations where commuters find no designated place to toss their coffee cups and snack wrappers.

“We saw an uptick in litter at the beginning of the pilot,” said MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz. “But the amount of litter now is almost on par with stations that have cans.”

So in the long run, perhaps removing cans has little impact on litter; it just eliminates the bags of trash that maintenance workers must haul out. Perhaps litterbugs will be litterbugs, and responsible people will always find the socially acceptable place to toss their trash.

Ortiz said that the carry-in, carry-out policy has its practical limitations. “Some stations are way too busy,” he said. “At Times Square and Grand Central, it simply wouldn’t make sense.”

“Experimentation is great,” said Jeff Kirschner, founder of Litterati, an online community that’s collecting, identifying, and mapping the world’s litter. “But we’ll need technologists, data scientists, and sociologists working with government to design the studies to get to the bottom of this.”

Collman and his staff continue to make morning maintenance rounds at Ocean Beach; he says they now spend five to 10 minutes picking up trash where they once spent an hour and a half. “I’m amazed at how little trash there is,” he said. “We’re continuing to monitor it closely, obviously. I won’t bury my head in the sand."