Drive around Worcester and you’ll notice a stark disparity: some neighborhoods are lined with trees, and others with loose trash.

Candy wrappers, iced tea bottles, face masks and pizza boxes are routinely scattered around streets, sidewalks and front yards in Worcester’s working-class communities. Some residents, like Christina Cambrelen, say they try to pick up the trash, but it’s futile.

“It always stays the same,” said Cambrelen, who lives in a triple-decker in the Bell Hill neighborhood. “It’s disgusting.”

While higher-income communities in Worcester are free of litter, environmental justice experts say the high cost of the city’s mandated yellow trash bags and a complaint-based cleanup system fuel the scattered garbage in working-class areas. City officials say they’ve tried to address the trash problem by funding community cleanups as well as stiffening penalties for illegal dumping.

But past efforts have not been enough to keep Worcester’s historically underserved communities clean. Activists and residents of those neighborhoods say the true fix will require the city to overhaul its trash system.

The trash problem stems from a few causes. A lot of the debris on sidewalks are recyclable goods that have blown out of bins. Also, many people don’t have their own trash cans, so when they put their garbage on the curb on pickup day, residents and city officials say it’s easy for raccoons and other animals to rip open the bags and spill the garbage out.

And then there’s the infamous “pay-as-you-throw system.”

Traditionally, cities fund trash collection via municipal taxes. Many landlords cover that expense or include it in the total cost of rent, so tenants often don’t think about actually paying for garbage disposal.

But in Worcester, local taxes don’t cover all garbage costs. Residents also pay for trash services by buying special yellow trash bags, which the city sells at grocery stores. If they don’t use the yellow bags, garbage workers don’t pick up their trash.

City officials and some environmentalists say this system encourages people to recycle more in order to avoid buying extra trash bags. That’s part of the reason why other communities have also adopted pay-as-you-throw systems — which, by the state’s count, are used in more than a quarter of Massachusetts households.

Worcester yellow bags.jpg
Yellow trash bags sit on the curb next to a recycling bin April 12 in the Bell Hill neighborhood of Worcester.
Sam Turken GBH News

Still, a roll of 10 yellow bags in Worcester costs $10, which is about 40 cents more than a box of 106 regular trash bags sold at Target. Elias Correa, who lives in Vernon Hill, said even if you’re recycling, the cost of Worcester bags starts to add up for families with kids.

“People that with not that much money — it’s like, ‘Am I gonna get the bags or am I gonna get milk and bread and stuff like that?”’ he said.

Daniel Faber, director of the Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at Northeastern University, said this is a major equity problem with pay-as-you-throw systems. Like a regressive tax, he said, Worcester’s trash program may appear to treat everyone equally, but it’s actually unfair because in more affluent areas, residents can afford the yellow bags. In lower-income communities, by contrast, the high cost of the bags incentivizes people to dispose of trash in ways that save them money, like illegally dumping in alleys or on vacant properties.

‘You’re somewhat embarrassed that this is where you live’

It is difficult to overstate the amount of loose garbage in some Worcester neighborhoods. Just ask Christina Roberts, who’s known as the "Trash Queen of Worcester" because she spends most afternoons picking up litter around the city.

During a recent drive through neighborhoods including Bell Hill and Main South, Roberts pointed out vacant properties with “no dumping” signs. Pieces of plastic hung off trees and empty soda bottles blew across streets in the wind.

“It hurts me to see it. Like, it really pains me,” Roberts said. “Kids in those neighborhoods — that’s all they see.”

A woman in a green sweatshirt holds a plastic cup and other small trash in one hand.
Christina Roberts, known as the "Trash Queen of Worcester," picks up rubbish on April 19 on Dewey Street in Worcester.
Sam Turken GBH News

Environmental justice experts like Faber say the trash is more than an eyesore: residents are being denied a right guaranteed in the Massachusetts Constitution.

“And that is to live in a healthy and clean environment,” Faber said. “Low-income communities have the same rights as any other community.”

Living in a community with trash problems can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, he said. There are health effects if the garbage attracts rodents and bugs that spread disease. There can be economic and psychological consequences, too.

U.S. cities already have a history of investing more resources in predominantly white areas than communities of color. Faber said the garbage problem can exacerbate that by creating a sense that some areas are uncared for and aren’t worth new investments in infrastructure, parks and local businesses. Residents in those communities could end up believing their neighborhood is inferior to others.

“You get to the point where you’re somewhat embarrassed that this is where you live,” said Clyde Talley, a reverend at Belmont A.M.E. Zion Church and an activist with Black Families Together, a community group that works to address systemic racism in Worcester. “You don’t have that sense of pride.”

This is the case in communities like Bell Hill and Vernon Hill, where residents question why they live with trash blowing around sidewalks and streets but people in wealthier parts of the city don’t.

“The areas over there are nice and clean, and those are the areas that have money,” Correa said. “It’s frustrating.”

A complaint-driven process

Worcester Commissioner of Public Works and Parks Jay Fink acknowledges the pay-as-you-throw program can be more financially taxing for some people than others. But he said if the city abandons the system or adopts an alternative model that supplies a set number of yellow bags for free each month, taxes may have to increase to help fund trash collection. Therefore, city officials are trying to address the trash problem in other ways.

The Downtown Worcester Business Improvement District has a team of workers who walk around the area picking up trash and removing graffiti. There is also the Worcester Green Corps for high schoolers to help clean green spaces and streets, a partnership program of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, the city, Worcester Community Action Council and United Way of Central Massachusetts.

Most recently, city officials amended ordinances, shortening the time frame people have to address trash violations on their properties.

“Considerable time often elapses between the time that a violation is either reported or discovered, and when the issues [are] actually resolved, removed, abated or cleaned up,” Christopher Spencer, Worcester’s commissioner of Inspectional Services, said in a recent letter to City Council.

One of Worcester’s trash ordinances previously gave property owners seven days to remove loose trash and recyclables from their land once city officials gave them a warning. If an owner didn’t meet that deadline, city workers would clean the property themselves. Now, the ordinance gives property owners just 24 hours to clean up their land and forces them to pay any costs incurred by the city for removing the trash.

Still, Fink noted officials often rely on residents to notify the city about loose trash on properties. So if residents don’t complain about the garbage, the city may not know there’s a problem.

Faber said this is another equity problem with Worcester’s trash collection system that helps explain why higher-income communities have less litter problems than working-class areas. People working multiple jobs may not have the time to call the city and complain about trash. Indeed, some residents in Vernon Hill told GBH News they don’t even know how to file a complaint. That’s likely not as much of a problem for people with more resources, said Gina Plata-Nino, a Central Massachusetts Legal Aid attorney.

“The power dynamics — it’s real,” Plata-Nino said. “People in more affluent neighborhoods ... expect to be treated in a certain way.”

Environmental justice advocates said Worcester’s trash system would be more fair if city workers routinely picked up litter in underserved communities even if residents don’t file complaints.

Fink said the city plans to do more of that throughout the spring, in part using street sweepers. He added there will be outreach efforts to teach residents how to file complaints about litter.

However, city workers cannot monitor neighborhoods year-round for trash, he said. Worcester can’t afford it.

“You’re talking about significant additional staffing to be able to do that,” he said. “Millions of dollars added to the tax roll.”