Since the coronavirus came into our lives, Philly’s trash and recycling collection schedules have been consistently delayed. And it’s making it more challenging for everyone right now to figure out when to put their trash to the curb.
But what happens if you have a neighbor who’s tossing trash out everyday? An Inquirer reader wrote into our Curious Philly platform to ask.
“I currently live in the Fishtown area. My neighbors throw their trash in the front of the house on the sidewalk daily. Is there a number to call to report this?” asked the reader.
The short answer is yes: You can call 311, the city’s customer service center for nonemergency inquiries, to file a complaint. But enforcement isn’t the same as it was before the pandemic. Here’s how to report a trash violation and what to expect right now — including if you put your own trash out on the wrong day because of scheduling confusion.
How to report a trash violation
The summer collection schedule runs from April 1 through Sept. 30. You’re supposed to set your trash out between 7 p.m. the night before and 7 a.m. the day of your scheduled collection. If you live in the area between Vine Street and Bainbridge Street and from the Schuylkill to the Delaware River, the schedule moves up one hour earlier on each end.
Trash set out before this window is considered litter, even if it’s in a proper container, and you’re subject to a citation.
If you want to report a violation, you can call 311, which forwards the complaint to the city’s sanitation enforcement unit. Normally, they’ll respond to the complaint within 48 hours. You can also fill out a Sanitation Code Violation form on the Street Department’s website.
How it works now: Violations are still being addressed, but enforcement measures have been scaled back since the pandemic, says Keith Warren, deputy streets commissioner of sanitation. Processing times on complaints may take longer, and citations may be less severe.
There are also fewer Streets Department officers, called SWEEP officers, out patrolling. They typically record and address violations that they see on the streets.
“In normal times, there are officers assigned to beats in every district,” says Warren. “Right now we have to alter that because we’re having to augment other parts of our operation.”
What happens if you’re reported?
There are several potential consequences.
“Our preferred method is to educate the property owner, and issue a written notice,” says Warren.
But you could also receive a $50 fine, and you’re eligible to be fined every 24 hours until the problem is fixed.
“Much of it is in the eye of the ticket writer,” says Warren. “If it’s just an early [trash] set-out versus if they’ve encountered problems with the household before, whether or not you get a fine may be different.”
How it works now: You’re less likely to receive a fine right now if someone reports you.
“We still patrol, and we’re not trying to encourage bad behavior for people to litter, but we are taking into consideration delays before issuing any citations,” says Warren. “In most cases, we’re issuing warnings.”
If your trash isn’t picked up, will you get fined for not taking it back inside?
No. If your trash wasn’t picked up on your scheduled day, leave it out. During normal times, you’d call 311 or send a message through the Streets Department’s customer service portal to notify them that your house or block was missed. They’ll retrieve the garbage — unless you’re to blame. If you set your trash out too late or there are visible contaminants in the trash, you’ll need to deal with it yourself.
How it works now: Schedules are continuously shifting right now. To find out if your designated trash pick-up day has moved, check the Streets Department website’s COVID-19 service section for weekly trash and recycling updates.
“We’re hoping people are following the schedule we put out each week, but those conditions can change,” says Warren, noting issues like weather challenges and hefty citywide trash loads. “If we hadn’t made it to you, we will get to it eventually.”
The Streets Department is currently asking people not to call 311 about delayed pickups.
What if my recycling gets wet?
Many items can no longer be recycled once they get wet. If it rains, and your recycling bin doesn’t have a lid, all those paper products are now likely considered trash. It’s a common problem, even without scheduling delays.
“If you’ve determined that your recycling is ruined, there’s no harm in repacking it as trash,” says Warren.
If you need a lid, you can get one at any of Philly’s six Sanitation Convenience Centers. (Call in advance to check availability.) For recycling bins, register online to request one. You can also create your own. Any sturdy plastic or metal container (32 gallons or less) will do, as long as it’s marked with the word “RECYCLING.”
Just be sure to avoid using a cardboard box. Those should never be turned into trash receptacles.
“If it gets wet, it’ll burst or break immediately. Just imagine a block with 100 homes on it and the boxes are breaking,” says Warren. “And those little grocery bags, when you’ve got 10 or 20 of those to pick up, that aren’t tied and the wind can blow them away, that’s not helpful.”
Every garbage truck has a broom and shovel on it, and sanitation workers are supposed to clean up trash that spills out. But let’s not create more burdens for already overburdened workers. Excess spillage will only make collection delays worse. The ideal receptacle for both trash and recycling is a sturdy container with a lid.
How it works now: You can normally be fined for having too many recyclable materials in your trash. Because of scheduling delays, which increases the chances of your recycling getting wet and ruined, enforcement is largely being paused.
» READ MORE: Read more Curious Philly questions, answered
I see some blocks keep their trash cans outside all the time. What’s the deal?
There are 24 blocks in the city where residents are permitted to permanently store a trash can outside of their home. It’s part of PhilaCan, a program designed to help decrease litter.
“We found there are some parts of the city where people have trouble storing trash and that seemed to inspire bad behavior,” says Warren. “The intent was to provide a uniform container that could be stored in front of properties to fight litter and discourage early set outs and illegal dumping.”
At least 75% of the block must be onboard, and if you don’t maintain your trash can (keep it clean and not overflowing), you may be removed from the program.
How it works now: PhilaCan is not accepting any new participants.
“The budget had to be extremely altered because of the pandemic and a lot of pilot programs were suspended to ensure that the core services were being delivered — and even now, the pandemic is slowing core services,” says Warren.