‘Carry In, Carry Out’ Carries On

‘Carry In, Carry Out’ Carries On

County considers restoring trash cans to parks.

Jennifer Chambers sat through three hours of testimony at one of the County Council’s April operating budget hearings. One speaker after another requested funding for new hiring, human services and outreach programs.

Chambers was there to talk about trash. Specifically, Chambers says there’s too much of it piling up in the county’s parks, evidence that a three-year-old initiative that instituted a “carry in carry out” policy at most parks isn’t working.

“I had about five people come up to me afterward and say ‘Thank you so much. ... I’ve been complaining about this to my neighbors and I’m so glad you’re here talking about this issue,” Chambers said. “I’ve gotten that pretty much anywhere that I’ve gone.”

Chambers, of Silver Spring, is the founder of the Coalition to Return Trash Cans to Our Parks, which she organized in January to lobby to end the carry in carry out program.

Chambers started the group after trash started to pile up a the local park where she and other neighborhood mother brought their young children to the playground. She quickly learned that citizens across the downcounty area from Takoma Park to Bethesda were having the same experience.

As the County Council considers County Executive Doug Duncan’s proposed $3.5 billion operating budget this month, Chambers’ five months of lobbying seem close to paying off. Several county councilmembers, including Howard Denis (R-1) who represents Potomac and Bethesda, have rallied around the trash can issue.

But the only indication that cans will be restored was a handshake agreement between Planning Board chairman Derrick Berlage and Duncan, said council spokesman Patrick Lacefield, and it was conditioned on Park and Planning receiving full funding under Duncan’s budget, which is unlikely to occur.

“We don’t know how much is going to be restored in terms of funding,” said Carolyn Wainwright, community relations manager at Park and Planning. “The bottom line will come when we know just how many dollars we have to work with.”

The county piloted the carry-in, carry-out policy in six parks in September 2002. In the spring of 2003 during an intensive budget review, the Department of Park and Planning decided to expand the program to most of the county’s parks and implemented the change starting that summer as part of a larger streamlining of waste collection.

In December 2003, trash cans were removed from 270 of 390 total county parks. The county’s largest parks, recreation parks and regional parks like Potomac’s Cabin John Regional Park were excluded, and cans in stream valley parks were quickly restored.

Not having to collect trash from the parks has produced a gross savings of nearly $400,000 per year. But the net effect has been somewhat less impressive. In most areas, the policy wasn’t working according to Park and Planning staff and a recently-released one-year review of the program. Visitors piled their trash by fence posts. In a few cases where bags were provided, visitors filled the bags but then left them in the park believing that the county would collect them.

The county had to introduce litter crews and redouble the efforts of existing employees. With the added costs figured in, the county was saving $75,000 per year. And complaints about trash have spiked to 10 times the level they were at before the cans were removed.

Potomac's Falls Road local park, also known as Hadley's Park, was among the 70 "problem parks" identified by the Park and Planning's one-year review. Lacefield said that he sometimes visits the park with his son and found it "a mess" following implementation of the carry-in, carry-out policy.

In spite of officially being a carry-in, carry-out park, Hadley's continues to have four trash cans — two at each side of the parking area.

“We’re going to pull the plug on it. You do what you can in this world. The juice is not worth the squeeze, as they say,” said County Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who sits on the planning, housing, and economic development committee. “The committee recommendation is to go back to the old way of doing business. The point of the program was to see if we could find some cost savings.”

REPLACING TRASH CANS with trash bags for carry-in, carry-out was a success at state and federal parks, including C&O Canal National Historical Park, which has had the policy in place for six years.

“The response to the program has been tremendous,” said Bob Hartman, acting deputy superintendent for the C&O park. “It reduced our handling of trash by about 90 percent.” With trashcans, “The park was dirtier then than it is now. You never could empty them fast enough and people just piled [trash] up around them.”

Hartman said that the park receives no more than a handful of complaints a year about the trash policy and that it’s glad to be saving money on trash collection and spending it elsewhere. Another bonus is that carry-in, carry-out addressed a call to implement recycling at the park.

The park had installed recycling bins but the bins were filled with everything from food trash to dog feces.

“I got everything in them but recycling,” Hartman said. He believes that many visitors carrying their trash out of the park will recycle cans and bottles at home as they normally do.

Carry-in, carry-out encourages good park stewardship, Hartman said. Part of the theory behind the policy is that there are two classes of people — those who value the park enough as a resource to carry out their trash and those who choose to litter. The latter group will do so regardless of whether trash cans are provided or not, meaning that the expense of trashcans is a waste.

But different parks draw different clientele. While many C&O visitors may be hikers for example, many visitors using local community parks are there for ballgames and picnics.

“It’s like mixing apples and apricots when you begin to talk about a state park or a federal park” said Wainwright, of Park and Planning.

State and federal parks generally have controlled entrances, with signs reminding visitors about the trash policy and have park staff there to remind visitors of the policy, and enforce it if necessary. Things like campground permits carry explicit reminders.

Park and Planning completed a one-year review of carry-in, carry-out in county parks last month. The conclusion: It’s been a mixed success, at best.

Chambers partly faults a lack of adequate public education efforts when the program was introduced. Though the report lists a number of outreach projects including press releases and notification to civic groups, she said that all she saw was the stickers placed on trashcans saying that they would be removed.

But more fundamental perhaps is the fact that different parks simply have different uses, and different needs.

The City of Rockville manages trash collection in its parks on a case-by-case basis, and Wainwright said that Park and Planning will likely look at a piecemeal plan too.

Chambers thinks the best hope for getting the trashcans back lies in make sure it becomes a specific line-item in the budget and not just a vague intention.

“I do see a light at the end of the tunnel, she said. “However I also understand having worked in political settings before and been a grassroots organizer that nothing is done until it’s done. Anything can happen in that last hour.”