By Alex Slaymaker
During the summer of 2015 I interned at the Department of Public Services (DPS) in Cincinnati, Ohio studying trash- and I loved it! Over the course of a few months, I investigated illegal dumping in the city, its causes, and a suite of potential solutions. Dumping is not to be confused with litter, which is classified as the illegal disposal of smaller items including fast food byproducts, cigarettes, and cans. Rather, dumping is the illegal disposal of bulk items like a mattress or trash bags, usually out of a vehicle. Sounds like a thrilling thing to spend the summer researching, right? Probably a summer vacation on everyone’s bucket list... Well, for me, it was better than a vacation because I felt like my work was making a positive impact in people’s lives. Dumpsites like the one in this photo negatively impact the quality of life of citizens, economic revitalization, and local ecology.
I had to get to the root of this problem so I asked the following questions:
• What’s the current state of this problem and who is it impacting?
• Where and why is dumping occurring?
• What can the City and community do to decrease this problem and enhance the City’s many assets?
Although short and concise, these are not straight forward questions. As a newcomer to the Department, I didn’t know where to start so I began asking questions. I asked A LOT OF QUESTIONS, and always asked who else I should talk to. I felt like an investigative journalist. Before the summer was over, I interviewed over 60 stakeholders from across the state. Through the wisdom of others willing to share their time and experience, I was transformed from an illegal dumping novice to one of the leading experts on the complexities of dumping in Cincinnati. So, what did I learn?
Bed bugs and tire scrappers
There are many drivers behind illegal dumping including improper responses to foreclosure, evictions, and bed bugs for a myriad of reasons revolving around convenience and cost. Additionally, many small time ‘fly-by-night’ handymen dump their waste instead of paying tipping (disposal) fees and tire scrappers do the same in order to avoid EPA regulations and recycling costs at $3 a tire. These dumpers are not caught and prosecuted largely due to prioritization of other issues by the Police, Sheriff’s Department, and County Prosecutors. However, another driver of this behavior beyond the cost and enforcement, is systemic poverty and the lack of community empowerment. I further dissect these drivers and more in my report. But, since I am a student in the applied Sustainable Solutions Masters program at ASU, it’s only natural I move on to the solutions. There is no 90 day plan to rid Cincinnati of dumping. But, there are holistic steps the City can take with the community to create a cleaner, healthier, safer, and more beautiful future.
My favorite part, Solutions
Blight remediation of which illegal dumping is one component, is not just about minimizing threats, but also about enhancing and protecting Cincinnati’s many assets. Stakeholders I interviewed helped enlighten my report, and most importantly, informed the creation of a robust collection of solution options Based on research findings, I organized solutions suggested by stakeholders into five categories: (1) Partnerships, (2) Education & Outreach, (3) Process & Policy Improvement, (4) Enforcement & Prosecution, and (5) Economics. I listed the most actionable and important strategies below:
1.Create a joint City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Environmental Crimes Task Force:
a.One team will focus on investigating, prosecuting, and abating dumping. Another team, along with citizen involvement, will focus on community outreach.
2. Develop comprehensive DPS communication and partnership strategies:
a.Hold multiple communication events explaining the negative impacts of dumping, alternative options to dumping, and punishments.
b.Partner with community organizations, non-profits, industry groups, local businesses and religious organizations to identify and address dumping hotspots and build community pride through people-centered solutions.
c.Launch Habitat’s ReStore and Goodwill donation opportunities for off-campus housing during the move-out period for University of Cincinnati students.
d.Train residents to report illegal dumping and conduct clean-ups.
3. Improve existing Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) scrap tire fee system:
a.The state-wide OEPA recycling fee ($3 per tire) discourages some folks from properly disposing of tires. One solutions is to close the loop by collecting this cost in full at the point of purchase.
Collaboration between cities, departments, industry groups, non-profits, communities, individuals, media, and more will be required to build the social capacity required to create a more sustainable Cincinnati. Furthermore, implementing one or two solutions will not significantly impact dumping. As with any complex problem, a multi-faceted, iterative, and collaborative approach is required. Addressing illegal dumping will be neither easy nor fast because it is a symptom and cause of cyclical blight strongly tied to low socioeconomic status.
The work has just begun
Despite the magnitude of challenges ahead, the work I did this summer helps guide the City and community’s efforts to improve quality of life. The goal is to create a Cincinnati with streets and riverbeds free of debris and full of life. A place where citizens from all neighborhoods are prideful of their community and collaborate to keep it clean. Where historic homes are restored and the City’s character is more charming than ever. Together, citizens, policy makers, developers, public employees, and activists have the power to make this vision reality.
Challenges are the key to growth
This investigation provided me with a unique, engaging, and challenging opportunity to apply skills and knowledge in the field. To be effective in my internship, I learned about a few unexpected topics like eviction, GIS, landlord concerns, bed bugs, and environmental crime prosecution. Now, I know far too much about bed bugs, and just thinking about it makes me feel itchy.
Although fun, it was definitely difficult work. I have done extensive applied-research projects before, but prior to this experience I never worked in the public sector. Collaborating across different departments, walks of life, and bureaucratic levels while working to understand what information stakeholders need helped me create useful solutions. This process was invaluable and I expect to use skills learned this summer for the rest of my career. When the summer was over I had written a 63 page report and presented my findings to City Council and the nationally respected data analytics center CincyStat. I found this whole experience very fulfilling and am excited for a lifetime of community-focused work.
I couldn’t write a blog post about my work and not show love for the people I spent all summer with. Public Services (aka Public Works in other cities) is basically the department which makes sure civilized society continues to flow smoothly. Without trash collection, functioning streets, and lights that come on, our fragile 'modern' society actually starts to crumble. So, be grateful to these folks and say thanks!
I feel blessed for the opportunity to work closely with the amazing people of the Dept. of Public Services and my supervisor- whose creativity, positivity, intelligence, and strategic vision is truly inspirational.