On a day off from work last week, Hugh Davis filled his SUV with two mattresses, some blue plastic tubs, a large potted plant, and assorted trash, drove from his home in East Falls, and dumped everything in Strawberry Mansion.
The location, 2601 W. Glenwood Ave., is one of six sites (don’t call them “dumps”) where Philadelphia accepts bulk trash that residents drop off. As the city ramps up enforcement of litter and dumping laws through increased fines and surveillance cameras, what is the city doing to encourage the legal disposal of trash?
“Not everybody is trying to be a criminal,” said Monica King, chair of the Fishtown Neighbors Association’s Beautification Committee. "There are legitimate barriers to legal dumping.”
Five years ago, city residents could take their electronics, old furniture, and other bulk trash to three “sanitation convenience centers.” Philadelphia now operates six “strategically placed” across the city, said Carlton Williams, commissioner of the Streets Department. The centers, which accept trash only from city residents, not contractors, take items such as televisions and washing machines that the city won’t collect with regular trash pickups.
Here’s the list of centers:
- Northwest Philadelphia: 320 Domino Lane
- Northeast Philadelphia: State Road and Ashburner Street
- Strawberry Mansion: 2601 W. Glenwood Ave.
- Port Richmond: 3901 Delaware Ave.
- Southwest Philadelphia: 3033 S. 63rd St., near Passyunk Avenue
- West Philadelphia: 5100 Grays Ave. (temporarily closed, with plans to reopen this spring)
The centers, which cost the city $510,000 annually to operate, are open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. October through March, and 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. April through September. Williams said the city restricts hours so people aren’t dropping off items in the dark, which can be hazardous.
King said she didn’t know the centers weren’t open Sundays until after she and a neighbor cleaned out the Fishtown Neighbors Association’s storage unit on a Sunday a couple of weeks ago and looked up the hours. With a dozen bags of office furniture, paper, expired soda, and bulk jars of pickles and mayo, they drove in her neighbor’s car to their houses to split the load between them. On the way, they passed an illegal dumping site on Frankford Avenue full of bags of clothes and household junk.
“I just said to myself, ‘I totally get why people would do this,’ " King said.
She said the city should expand the hours — and do a better job of making sure residents know about the drop-off centers.
“If you go to survey 10 people on the street and you ask, ‘Do you know what a sanitation convenience center is?’ nine or 10 of them will have no idea,” she said.
The six centers received roughly 183,800 visitors and collected 1.9 million pounds of debris between July 2017 and June 2018.
A three-minute walk from the Strawberry Mansion sanitation center — at the intersection of Ridge and Glenwood Avenues — the space between two buildings was littered last week with trash the center could have taken: a mattress, a paint can, plastic bags bursting with garbage, tree branches, a mop.
Davis’ haul came from cleaning out his home as he prepares to move. But he estimates he comes to drop off trash once a month, trying to help out trash collectors. It’s a family tradition.
“My dad would take me to the dump and we’d dump everything in the incinerator,” Davis, 48, said.
Plus, he is a city employee whose wife works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Now, the city separates materials and recycles some of it. The city organizes periodic collections of hazardous materials such as batteries and oil, which the centers do not accept.
In January, the city started a pilot program called PhilaCan in North Philadelphia around Temple University. The city gives free lidded trash cans to people with limited trash storage to keep on their properties throughout the week. The city is considering expanding the program to other neighborhoods this spring.
Officials also are looking to bring back bulk trash curbside collection, which ended in 2008 during the Great Recession. Residents would schedule pickup times and pay about $25 per item.
The city is considering bringing trash-compactor trucks into neighborhoods on certain Saturdays, a program the city put on hold a couple of years ago because of cost.
"We want to provide accessibility to residents who may not own a vehicle,” Williams said.
By the end of the year, city officials hope to change the online form for requesting construction permits to include a drop-down menu of waste haulers. Applicants will have to identify haulers they will use. The city also is working on a registry to keep track of where dumped tires originate and who is responsible for disposing of them.
For contractors, getting caught dumping every once in a while can be cheaper than paying to dispose of trash properly, said Robert Dubas, a program coordinator at Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, the state affiliate of the national nonprofit Keep America Beautiful. City officials hope increased fines can curb that behavior.
At most waste disposal facilities, the going rate is about $80 per ton, said Nic Esposito, director of the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, an interdepartmental effort to clean up the city.
“It’s not like it costs $500," he said. "Eighty bucks doesn’t seem like it’s going to be that much money that you’re going to go dump waste in someone’s neighborhood and commit a crime.”
The process of getting permits for dumpsters and street closures can be another barrier, said Mike Castellano, an associate at Revolution Recovery who helps contractors recycle their materials. Delays for approvals delay construction projects and if developers don’t want to wait, they’ll start working without dumpsters. Revolution Recovery provides dumpsters and sorts recyclables at its facilities.
Williams of the Streets Department acknowledged the city has to do more to prevent commercial and residential illegal dumping.
“We’ve got to do more education,” he said, "more outreach.”