Trash pickup delays surged in Philadelphia during the pandemic. But they weren’t the same everywhere.
Eight of the city's 13 sanitation districts averaged rates below 50% in late 2020 and early 2021, according to data released Thursday by the city controller.
A report has confirmed what most Philadelphians already knew: Trash pickup delays have gotten worse since the coronavirus pandemic hit, with the average on-time pickup rate falling to just 53% in fiscal year 2021.
But as citywide trash tonnage increased by an “unprecedented” 21%, some neighborhoods have been less likely than others to experience delays, the Philadelphia Controller’s Office found in its analysis of the trash collection data released Thursday.
Center City and the Northern Liberties-Fishtown area have consistently experienced the highest on-time trash pickup rates over the course of the pandemic, according to the data, while eight of the city’s 13 sanitation districts averaged rates below 50% late in fiscal 2020 and early 2021.
“The on-time collection rate, the service delivery, is not equal across neighborhoods, and that’s not right,” Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said Thursday in an interview. “Everyone who lives in our city needs to get the service delivery they deserve.”
Mayor Jim Kenney’s office was reviewing the report Thursday afternoon, a spokesperson said, and could not yet comment on the specifics of the analysis.
“However, the Streets Department has repeatedly explained the challenges of how a major increase in curbside tonnage, a workforce afflicted and impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to resolve staffing shortages have impacted departmental operations,” Kevin Lessard said in a statement. “The city is committed continuing to collect trash and deploy sanitation despite significant logistical and operational issues confronted over the past year and a half.”
The controller’s analysis provided a data-driven progress report on more than a decade of garbage pickup in the city, with a particular focus on how the service has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The office analyzed only the raw pickup data and did not look at the racial or socioeconomic demographics of the sanitation districts, Rhynhart said.
Philadelphia residents have long complained about trash across the city, but it has been an especially intense topic since the pandemic struck. Philadelphia was one of many places where collection delays became common in the pandemic’s early months. Trash and recycling piled up so high in some neighborhoods that one councilmember called it “a public health crisis” and the city had to hire 120 temporary workers to catch up.
At the time, the sanitation workers’ union and the city said more workers were calling out due to positive COVID-19 tests, virus exposures, child-care issues, or other concerns. Union leaders also said workers were worried about the inability to social distance on the job and a lack of adequate personal protective equipment. At the same time, the amount of trash was increasing with so many residents stuck at home. Severe weather further exacerbated delays at times.
» READ MORE: Trash pickup delays spread throughout Philly region, leaving one South Jersey town scrambling to collect its own
“During the course of the pandemic, Philadelphians across the city have complained, and rightfully so, about delays in trash pickups,” Rhynhart said. “Trash pickup is a core government service, and people deserve to have their trash picked up on time.”
Lessard, the mayor’s spokesperson, noted the record increase in tonnage, saying it has contributed to delays during the pandemic. The report noted that tonnage increased in nearly all districts to varying degrees.
But widespread issues existed before the pandemic, too, the data show.
While the on-time pickup rate citywide was 94% between fiscal years 2009 and 2013, it fell to 84% between 2014 and 2019 due to a recession-induced compactor shortage, the report found.
Disparities were also apparent pre-pandemic, though they have worsened considerably in recent months.
From January 2017 to February 2020, Center City and parts of the Northeast — among the city’s whitest neighborhoods — experienced average pickup rates of 95% and 93%, according to the report, while areas in Northwest Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, and West Philadelphia saw rates between 65% and 76%.
“When you look at the data and what the history has shown before the pandemic with trash collection, this needs to be fixed across all neighborhoods. A plan needs to be developed to get there,” Rhynhart said. “I would hope that the Streets Department, the mayor’s administration would look at this data and utilize this data to fix the issues it highlights.”