When it comes to trash, Philadelphia is living in the dark ages.
We still rely on three-person crews manually lifting plastic bags from the ground. Street sweeping is a limited pilot program. Wealthy neighborhoods, like Center City, can achieve a modicum of cleanliness by funding their own cleaning services — leaving the rest of the city behind. Illegal dumping is rampant. The result is filthy streets and exhausted sanitation workers.
While moves to finally begin sweeping our streets (first promised by then-candidate Jim Kenney in 2015), accepting compost at recreation centers, and hiring more workers are welcome, fixing our dirty streets requires new ideas. We talked to four thoughtful Philadelphians from different vantage points on sanitation and government for their ideas on how the city can finally fix the trash issue.
Communicate with residents and enforce law on illegal dumpers
I live in a part of the city that has grown to become a haven for African, Asian, and Latin American immigrants. A lot of our problems are cultural differences and a language barrier. The city isn’t telling them when or how to put out their trash in their language or in any other language. When it comes to things like holidays or any other day when you are not supposed to put your trash out, unless you are on Twitter and following the Sanitation Department, you don’t know. Communication, and communicating in the languages people use, are critical.
We [also] have a lot of problems with illegal dumping. I’ve noticed a disparity between how 311 responds between neighborhoods. Would there be a five-day window for picking up dumping in Rittenhouse Square or other tony neighborhoods, as there is in Southwest Philadelphia?
How does illegal dumping happen in a neighborhood that is so heavily policed? That protect and serve — where’s the serve part? I’m not going to say I’m the biggest fan of police, but why can’t they have an impact there? They are driving around in their cruisers, but they don’t seem to notice the trash. I think being in the car insulates them a bit.
Oskar Castro is a business owner and diversity, equity, and inclusion professional living in the Elmwood section of Southwest Philadelphia.
Recognize volunteers as a complement to citywide program, not a substitute
We need clean baseline conditions for our commercial corridors to be successful. We know that when commercial corridors aren’t clean that can increase violent crime and crime anywhere from 11% to 39%. I think that the city-funded Philadelphia Taking Care of Business program was a jump in light-years in terms of a comprehensive approach to corridor cleaning.
I love volunteers, and volunteer cleanups are great, but they are a complement to and not a substitute for municipal sanitation. Just as how town watch is a complement to and not a substitute for the Police Department. It’s not a sustainable strategy for clean streets.
Alex Balloon is the director and corridor manager for the Tacony Community Development Corporation.
Believe in Philadelphians’ ability to adapt
A problem like trash is literally just figuring out the logistics. We don’t seem to prioritize. There’s no energy to fix what is a fixable problem.
We treat the trash issue as a monolith. Our neighborhoods are different and diverse. It isn’t necessarily going to be one-size-fits-all. Some neighborhoods are more suburban than others, and finding out what solution works for each neighborhood is going to be key.
“We have to get out of the mind-set that says, ‘Philadelphians love change as long as everything stays the same.’”
We need to try new things. We don’t necessarily know what is going to work, but we know what we do now doesn’t. A lot of the time in Philadelphia we just don’t believe in our residents. We don’t give them the benefit of the doubt that they can adapt if we do things differently. It holds back a lot of quality-of-life improvements. We have to get out of the mind-set that says, “Philadelphians love change as long as everything stays the same.” We should see what other cities do, and just try them out. If it doesn’t work, we don’t have to continue.
Lauren Vidas is an attorney and government relations professional who formerly served in the Mayor’s Office during Michael Nutter’s administration. She lives in South Philadelphia.
Switch to semiautomatic trucks to support workers
Switching to semiautomatic trucks is the best idea to improve trash collection in Philadelphia. This will do wonders for us because, one, we’ll have standardized cans, which limits people putting their trash out all crazy. Two, you save so much energy and pressure on the bodies of sanitation. All they have to do is roll the cans over. With semiautomatic trucks, people have a misconception that people would lose jobs, because you only need two people per truck. But instead, we can create new crews. You can create so much more coverage and offer more services. In Austin they offer compost services, so it would create jobs for workers and services for residents.
And increasing the pay, plus offering hazard pay, would boost morale. My starting salary was about $32,000. The average home in Philadelphia is $280,000. You can’t afford that on a sanitation salary.
Terrill Haigler is the creator of the @_yafavtrashman Instagram page and a former sanitation worker for the City of Philadelphia.