By Robert A. Whitney
I have lived on Beacon Hill since 1985, and I have been living with Beacon Hill’s rat problem ever since moving here – and it’s getting worse! An Axios report in December 2022 cited Boston as the “rattiest” city in the nation, according to 2021 American Housing Survey data that ranked metro regions by the number of rodent sightings inside homes. With 21.6% of respondents reporting rodent sightings, Boston beats Philadelphia’s 19.5% and New York City’s measly 15.3%. According to WBUR, cities in the Boston region and across the northeast have recently been facing a worsening rat problem. WBUR recently reported that in the City of Boston, rat and rodent complaints increased by 48% from 2019 to 2021.
Boston City Council President Ed Flynn has described rat infestations in his district, which included part of the North Slope of Beacon Hill, as the issue he’s likely focused on the most since joining the City Council some six years ago. Former City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who until recently represented Beacon Hill and is a Beacon Hill resident, has described the city’s rat problem as “a critical public health issue.” Councilor Bok also noted that the problem is exacerbated by a couple of factors, including the fact that in parts of the city like Beacon Hill, there isn’t adequate room for large trash barrels to be left on the sidewalk or inside homes, and as such, they can’t be used to store resident’s garbage overnight. Instead, plastic garbage bags must be used.
Another factor in the Boston’s exploding rat problem is that since the City changed the garbage pickup time in the summer of 2019, from 7 a.m. to 6 a.m. on garbage pickup days, Beacon Hill residents now mostly put their garbage out the night before the pickup day, with the garbage sitting out overnight, thereby effectively feeding Beacon Hill’s rats. In 2019, when the City announced that it was changing the garbage pickup time to 6 a.m. from 7 a.m., and that it was entering a five-year, $28 million contract with East Boston-based Capitol Waste Services, effective, July 1, 2019, it represented that the garbage hauler was “contractually bound” to begin garbage pickups at 6am on Beacon Hill.
On Beacon Hill, a Town Hall sponsored by the Beacon Hill Civic Association (“BHCA”) was held in June 2019, at which Beacon Hill residents came together and heard from City officials about the proposed change in garbage pickup times. Almost unanimously, Beacon Hill residents at that meeting opposed the change to an earlier garbage pickup time, stating that the earlier pickup time would likely compel Beacon Hill residents to put out their garbage the night before, so as to not have to get up before 6am on pickup days to put out their garbage bags. And in fact, this has occurred exactly as was predicted – more garbage is now being put out the night before garbage pickup day than ever before. Even before 2019, when the garbage pickup time began at 7am on pickup days on Beacon Hill, many residents put out their garbage the night before, thereby effectively feeding Beacon Hill’s rat population overnight twice a week.
The BHCA spent many years before the summer of 2019 educating the Beacon Hill neighborhood that garbage should not be put out the night before pickup day because of the rat problem and encouraging residents to instead get up early on garbage pickup day before 7am and put out their garbage at that time. The education campaign was very successful, with many residents forgoing putting out their garbage the night before pickup day! But when the City changed the garbage pickup time from 7am to 6am in July 2019, all the many years of educational effort fell to the wayside, and many residents went back to putting out their garbage the evening before pickup day. For many residents, getting up before 6am on pickup day to put out their garbage was just too inconvenient.
New York City has had similar and increasing problems with its plastic garbage bags being left out overnight and thereby becoming an easy and reliable food source for its own large population of rats. According to NBC News, New York City health inspectors documented about 60,000 instances of rodent activity in the 2022, compared to about 30,000 rodent citations in 2021. New York’s Mayor Adams, in late 2022, signed a legislative package aimed at eradicating rats in New York City, which included a provision to significantly reduce the number of hours plastic garbage bags are allowed to remain on public sidewalks at night before pickup.
At a hearing held at Boston City Council on April 11, 2023, on the rat issues in Boston’s own neighborhoods, Councilor Bok noted that leaving thin plastic bags of garbage out overnight on Beacon Hill, which is the status quo in that neighborhood, isn’t a workable solution to the neighborhood’s problem with rats. Instead, Councilor Bok recommended scheduling garbage pickup for late morning on pickup days so that residents wouldn’t have any excuse for putting out their garbage the night before. Councilor Bok was correct – the only real solution to the rat problem is to deprive the Beacon Hill neighborhood’s rats of their overnight food supply.
Beacon Hill and other City neighborhoods have tried other potential solutions, including the use of folding fabric “barrels” in which to place plastic garbage bags overnight, but this turned out not to be a realistic solution: many of the fabric barrels were stolen or damaged, and rats could still easily gain access to the garbage bags placed in the lidless barrels. John Ulrich, Assistant Commissioner in the City’s Environmental Services Department, who heads the rodent control operation in Boston, has noted in testimony before the Boston City Council that rat activity in the City’s neighborhoods is based on three things: “food, water, and shelter, which are typically easy for rodents to find in Boston because of its density.” Assistant Commissioner Ulrich’s comments are dead-on correct: unless the rat population’s food supply is eliminated, the rat problem will never get under control in our neighborhoods.
Instead, the only solution that will actually work is to get the plastic garbage bags off the streets overnight in Beacon Hill and Boston generally. And the only way to accomplish this goal is to have a later pick up time on garbage collection days so that residents have time to put out their garbage bags on our sidewalks in the daylight hours of the morning just before pickup begins. Beacon Hill residents support this change. In 2021, the BHCA took a poll of Beacon Hill residents asking them about changing the garbage pickup time to help alleviate the rat problem. Over 85% of Beacon Hill residents polled supported the idea of having later pickup time in the morning on garbage and recycling days, thereby reducing the amount of garbage put out the night before and reducing the food supply available for rats on Beacon Hill.
Therefore, the City of Boston’s next garbage hauling contract should include the requirement that garbage collection on Beacon Hill and other City neighborhoods that utilize plastic garbage bags cannot begin until 9:00am at the earliest on garbage pickup days. In addition, it should not be permissible for City residents to put out their plastic garbage bags the night before pickup days, and instead, garbage bags should only be allowed to be put out on the sidewalk during daylight hours immediately prior to 9:00am on garbage pickup days. If we make these simple changes, our City neighborhoods, including Beacon Hill, will at least have a fighting chance in their epic battle against the rats.
Rob Whitney is an attorney and lives on Phillips Street on Beacon Hill with his family. He is the former Chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association.