Emerald Trash Heap
Seattle is overwhelmed by garbage and filth, but the city’s leaders won’t admit it.
Over the past few years, Seattle has become a dumping ground for millions of pounds of garbage, needles, feces, and biohazardous waste, largely emanating from the hundreds of homeless encampments that have sprouted across the city. Now, the Emerald City is on the verge of a full-blown public-health crisis. Last year saw a 400 percent increase in HIV infections among mostly homeless addicts and prostitutes in the city’s northern corridor. Public-health officials are sounding the alarms about the return of diseases like typhus, tuberculosis, and trench fever. Even the region’s famed mussels and clams have tested positive for opioids.
While anyone who travels through Seattle can see the trash and litter along the roadside and green spaces, I wanted to understand the scale of the problem with more quantitative precision. Last month, I requested from the city all public complaints about trash, needles, tents, feces, and biohazardous waste from 2018. I then geocoded each complaint to create a data visualization that I call the Great Seattle Trash Map. The map documents more than 19,000 citizen complaints, from mundane reports of abandoned appliances to more serious pleas to clean up dangerous waste. Each data point on the map demonstrates that homeless encampments, opioid addiction, and mental illness have created significant disorder in almost every corner of Seattle.
Only a few years ago, while Jenny Durkan, now mayor, was campaigning for office on a centrist policy platform, city government responded to growing public discontent and made an honest effort to clean up the streets. From 2017 to 2018, municipal cleanup crews picked up 8.6 million pounds of trash from illegal homeless encampments. Since then, however, the numbers have fallen off dramatically, partly because of pressure from activists to “stop the sweeps” of homeless encampments, which they call inhumane and unconstitutional. In the first four months of this year, municipal crews have cleaned up only eight sites.
Rather than take additional steps to remove illegal encampments, officials have chosen to accept, and even enable, them. The city council recently launched a pilot program to offer weekly garbage-pickup services to ten of the more than 400 encampments, promoting the illusion that these illegal tent cities are just like any other neighborhood. The program has been a failure. According to a Seattle Times report, campers returned only 26 percent of the trash bags that the city distributed and “even some of the ones returned had been ripped apart by people looking for needles with a bit of heroin left.”
Last year, despite overwhelming evidence that homeless encampments were generating enormous quantities of garbage, the city council considered making it illegal for non-homeless Seattle residents to dump trash in the encampments. Local politicians are so committed to representing the homeless as victims that they’ve invented a new crime: middle-class residents “framing” the homeless by dumping garbage in their camps. Unfortunately for activists and their city-government enablers, it’s becoming harder to explain away the thousands of tons of garbage, needles, tents, and feces that blanket much of the city.
As the trash map reveals, a solution is possible. Seattle’s most elite neighborhoods—Madison Park, Broadmoor, Laurelhurst, and Windermere—have avoided the garbage plague. Neighbors in these enclaves have pushed back against tent encampments and, in some cases, hired private security firms to implement what is, in effect, localized Broken Windows policing. These neighborhoods logged almost no complaints in all of 2018.
Seattle’s leaders should give the rest of the city’s neighborhoods the same kind of protection. With 10,000 employees, the city could easily mobilize the resources to clean up public spaces. If the political leadership was serious about reducing public disorder, it would enforce the law against public camping and begin a campaign to clean up the streets. Every time an Amazon engineer steps over a clutch of needles or a mother shuffles her children around a tent encampment, public patience with the status quo erodes. Seattle’s liberal moderates need to wake up and demand that city government meet one of its fundamental responsibilities: picking up the trash.
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).