Tackling trash in East Little Havana

About 5 years ago Corinna Moebius, cultural anthropologist, author and longtime Little Havana tour guide, noticed an increase in, well, trash. In the four previous years she had lived there, occasionally neighbors would put usable, unwanted household items on display prior to collection day, but it was a rare occurrence. As the recession escalated, the amount of discarded items seemed to spin out of control, she said. Unwanted sofas, tables, and television sets were making their way to the streets and vacant lots of East Little Havana. “What looked liked whole apartments” were being dumped on the sidewalk, says Sharif Salem, also a 9-year resident of the neighborhood, and photographer behind the Instagram photography series Sofas of Little Havana. Moebius and Salem’s beloved neighborhood was turning into an open-air dump. “There was no way the residents of East Little Havana themselves could dump so much,” Moebius recalls, which lead her to one conclusion — residents from neighboring areas had to be leaving their unwanted furniture here too.

According to the City of Miami’s Solid Waste Department’s website, bulky trash, including furniture, is collected once a week. Items can be left in front of your house the evening before the scheduled collection. There is also a Mini Dumping Facility located on NW 20 Street, which is cleared weekly.

So why would people choose to discard trash and furniture in Little Havana? Even after the city installed “No Dumping” signs, the problem persisted and grew. Week after week, East Little Havana locals found discarded sofas, chairs, and tables in empty lots in their community. It’s been five years, and nothing is changing. Personal and organized cleanups, while temporarily effective, are fruitless in the long run. Slapping a Band-Aid on a deep wound doesn’t cure anything, and the issue needs to be cleaned out at the source, Moebius said.

Finding the source, however, has proven difficult, as little investigation has taken place to uncover the culprits. Like clockwork, a day or two before collection, unwanted items start to build up in lots throughout the neighborhood, residents say. Whether intentional or not, the combination of trash and neglect sends a piercing message to the mostly working class, Central American immigrant residents of East Little Havana: “No one will notice. It’s a dump anyway.”

If illegal dumping is the cause, humility is the effect. As Moebius said, “How we treat places and how we treat people” go hand-in-hand. This blatant disregard of the community and its residents could be due to the transient nature of the city — people come and go, few are permanent. So who are you really hurting by leaving your trash in that vacant lot? Decent paying jobs are hard to come by and the costs of housing are rising, leading to unavoidable evictions or sudden relocations. When the furniture has to go, it has to go — wherever you can leave it. And if everyone else seems to be leaving it in East Little Havana with no repercussions, what’s stopping the next person with a sofa to off-load from dropping it off there?

Moebius thinks the dumping may be due to a larger problem of consumption. “Are we too wasteful?” she asked. Overproduction of garbage is a worldwide concern, especially in cities. According to Nature, an international journal of science, almost 50 percent of the world’s population was living in urban areas in the year 2000, leading to the daily output of more than 3 million tons of solid waste. These numbers are expected to double by 2025.

So what can be done? Adding trash cans might be a start, but trash cans fill up. Neighborhood cleanups offer a temporary solution, but may also add to the problem as dumpers know the trash will be cleared and there will be room for more. One action that both Moebius and Salem encourage is to scope out, identify the dumpers and fine them, which requires police support. “I think there should be fines or criminal charges for these people,” Salem said. “Not only is it unsightly but it creates obstacles that are a danger to pedestrians and road users alike.”

Until enforcement becomes a priority, you can pitch in to curb East Little Havana’s dumping problem. If you refurbish furniture, make art, or need to outfit a temporary space, why not head to East Little Havana on a Wednesday evening and see what you can find to reuse. If you are discarding furniture for any reason, don’t dump it. Instead, visit the city and county websites to find out how to toss your unwanted materials. The simplest solution — remember less is more. Reduce waste, forgo the styrofoam cups and plastic bags in favor of reusable ones. And toss whatever you don’t want in a trash bin, where it belongs. Last but not least, get the word out. This is our city — every neighborhood, every street, every resident. Let’s work together to keep it clean, safe, colorful, and vibrant, as Miami is meant to be.