On Wednesday morning, Terrill Haigler picked up three bags of trash off the streets of his North Philly neighborhood. Karla Noboa grabbed two bags of litter off their block in Port Richmond. And over in Kensington, Nic Esposito filled up three bags with waste that was clogging storm drains on his block.
The trio — along with several other activists — then took the litter they collected in their own neighborhoods and lined it up on the steps of the Municipal Services Building in Center City.
There, they demanded the resignation of Streets Department Commissioner Carlton Williams, asked for a new strategic plan to address the ongoing trash problem in Philadelphia, and rallied for automated trash trucks, protective equipment, and higher pay for sanitation workers.
“My friends and I decided enough is enough,” said Haigler. “We decided to make a statement to show the city, to show the mayor, and to show the Streets Department that we are tired and that we deserve clean streets.”
Delays in trash pickup have left garbage piling up on city streets, where it grows rank under the hot summer sun. And that’s on top of a serious litter problem that seems to perpetually plague “Filthadelphia.”
For 14 months during the pandemic, Haigler, better known as “Ya Fav Trashman,” worked as a city sanitation worker and used his Instagram account to humanize his profession and explain the ins and outs of trash pickup to residents. Now a full-time sanitation activist, Haigler organizes neighborhood cleanups and uses his platform to push for a cleaner city and better conditions for his former colleagues.
As he held his protest at the Municipal Services Building on Wednesday, across the street Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council held a news conference outside City Hall about the creation of a group that will provide support to neighborhood organizations seeking funding to reduce gun violence.
“There’s like 13 different epidemics in Philly. Trash is one of them,” Haigler said. “They talk about the gun violence … but if you look at the core issue of these zip codes, most of them have the highest litter in the whole city. It’s not a coincidence that they’re dirty and they have the highest gun violence. The two go hand in hand.”
Haigler said officials can’t address gun violence without addressing issues like trash and litter because both go to showing basic care and concern for communities.
“We need to let these zip codes know they’re important, we love them, and we see them,” he said.
In attendance at the trash protest was Morgan Berman, the founder and CEO of MilkCrate, a Philly-based company that builds apps for nonprofits. She’s partnering with Haigler on an app called Glitter that will pay residents to clean up their neighborhoods through corporate sponsorships.
“I was born in this city and ever since I was a small child I’ve been looking out the window wondering, ‘Why does it look like this? Why is my city so dirty?’” she said.
Esposito, who once worked at the Municipal Services Building as the city’s Zero Waste and Litter director, said it made him uncomfortable to protest in front of his former coworkers at MSB, but he felt it was necessary to highlight that the amount of trash in Philly “is not normal.”
“This is crazy. We should not accept this,” he said. “All we get is more excuses. … If you can’t do the job then get out of the job and let somebody in the job who can do it.”
Ron Whyte, a project coordinator for Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Trash Academy, attended the protest and said the city’s trash problem is a “public health disaster” and “an environmental justice issue.”
“The only people who can ignore this are the people who are living in rich neighborhoods who get their trash picked up. They can ignore it because nothing has changed for them,” Whyte said. “But for the rest of us, this crisis is continuing to escalate.”
Watching Wednesday’s protest from the sidelines was Maurice Sampson, Philly’s first recycling coordinator in 1985, who said the city’s trash collection has been stressed for decades.
“It’s always been on the edge, but COVID pushed it over and they are not going to recover until they redesign the system,” he said. “These issues have been here for 30 years, but it’s finally rising to the level where it’s everybody’s issue.”
In a statement, Streets Department spokesperson Keisha McCarty-Skelton said the department was challenged by the pandemic and staffing issues, leading to delays, but said it’s close to operating on a normal schedule and is planning a relaunch of phase two of a citywide mechanical sweeping program.
“The Streets Department has experienced this before when interest groups are passionate about a specific service and feel the government is not delivering the service effectively,” she wrote. “We appreciate and understand their frustration.”
But Haigler and the protesters said they want a plan to address the trash crisis, not platitudes.
“We need communication, education, and a game plan that works for the workers and works for the residents,” Haigler said. “Change has to be now.”