NEWBURY — For nearly seven years, longtime visual artist and educator Carol Baum has collected litter found along the roadside during a two-mile loop she walks weekly from her Hay Street home to Newman Road and back again.
For four of those years, Baum has creatively incorporated the debris she’s hauled back home into a public art project designed to raise awareness about public littering in Newbury – and hopefully to change people’s behavior along the way.
As the fourth anniversary of the installation of Baum’s Trash Tower on the grassy area in front of Newbury Elementary School came and went earlier this month, the project had much to celebrate.
What started as the seed of an idea presented by Baum to selectmen in December 2012 has blossomed into a successful collaborative project working with the students, teachers and administrators of the elementary school as well as from Triton Regional High School and Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill.
An online Kickstarter campaign helped raise money needed to erect the trash tower — a 12-foot-by-3.5-foot square tower built by Whittier Tech carpentry students — into which Baum and others have artistically placed much of the roadside refuse that she spent years gathering.
Triton students designed an informational bulletin board to stand alongside the tower that included a chalkboard for public comments, a mural of the weekly lists of litter collected, and details about the amount of time it takes for items to decompose.
“It takes a cigarette butt 1 to 12 years, tin cans 50 to 100 years, aluminum cans 80 to 100 years, glass bottles 1 million years, and plastic bottles forever,” according to the board.
Baum originally intended to use the money raised through Kickstarter to cover the cost of removing the tower at the end of a year. Despite all the positive results of Baum’s brainchild — she’s removed more than 1,000 cigarette butts from the roadside — the effort has fallen a bit short of the artist’s ultimate goal.
“The project will be successful if the tower is never filled. Then, the artwork — this sculpture — will have worked to change people’s behavior,” Baum said to students, teachers and others during an unveiling of the Trash Tower in front of the school in November 2014. Yet four years later, it hasn’t quite turned out that way.
“The disappointing thing is I am still collecting a lot of litter,” Baum said when commenting recently about the tower’s anniversary.
Although she first conceived of the idea for the public art project in 2012, Baum’s initial request to town officials was to have trash cans installed along the roadway where she walks.
But they were skeptical the presence of the cans would do anything to alter the impulse of people who threw trash from passing cars. People would just throw their household trash in the cans instead, they contended.
Baum hit a second roadblock when she proposed installing the tower on the Upper Green. She had to rethink those plans when selectmen received pushback from other residents about using the historic landmark for that purpose.
Eventually, she settled on the spot in front of the elementary school where the tower stands made from four sturdy cedar columns framing Lexan see-through plastic panels.
The tower is now nearly three-quarters of the way full with items such as recyclable plastic bottles, aluminum cans, glass bottles, fast-food packaging and trash bags. During her weekly walks, Baum has also come across more unusual items such as a child’s bicycle, a six-pack of beer, the top to a toilet tank, a 5.5-foot white plastic pipe, three pieces of heavy metal equipment, hundreds of nails and a pair of New Balance sneakers.
“Everything I can clean I put in the tower,” she said. The rest she drops off at the transfer station.
Four years ago, Baum envisioned her public art project would start a dialogue about the town’s trash problem with other residents who, like her, might be willing to make the effort needed to keep the landscape free of litter.
Although when it comes to littering, bad habits remain hard to break in Newbury, Baum is encouraged by the continued involvement of young people.
She now views the Hanover Street spot as an ideal site for the Trash Tower. It allowed her to more organically involve elementary school children in the project. Children are the ambassadors she needs to continue delivering her anti-litter missive, Baum said.
Last spring, art students from Triton redesigned the bulletin board next to the tower. Around a world globe painted on the front, it reads: “We share this world, let’s share ideas to save it ... take a piece of chalk and write your thoughts,” while across the mural on the back it states, “Love your world, don’t litter.”
“They’ve gotten the message,” Baum said.