Why can’t Philadelphia have clean streets? I’ve been asking myself this question more and more over the last 14 months.
COVID-19 has really shined a light on how important it is to have and keep a clean city. In Philadelphia, trash conditions have gotten so bad this summer, WHYY reported, that workers are “run ragged.” And city sanitation workers authorized a strike vote in late June.
Here in Philadelphia you can barely walk 20 feet without seeing litter on the ground. I know this as a former city sanitation worker who some might recognize as “Ya Fav Trashman,” my Instagram platform where I humanize the sanitation industry.
I recently had the opportunity to go to Austin, Texas, to host an event for Forklift Danceworks, and while down there I spent two days talking to their sanitation workers and department heads. I left their city confident that Philadelphia can do better. But first we need to understand how our trash got so bad.
The biggest difference I saw between Philadelphia and Austin was leadership. After five minutes of talking to Ken Snipes, the director of Austin Resource Recovery — which manages their city’s waste — I could tell that he was a servant leader. He told me he leads by two principles: one, keeping the workers safe, and two, making sure that no matter what, the city of Austin stays clean.
Austin has been using automatic collection vehicles since the 1990s. This allows for less stress on the bodies of the workers and more crews to cover Austin, because you only need two people to work semi-automated trucks and one operator for fully automated trucks. They distribute trash-collection information through cart or bin tags and send direct mail campaigns to residents. They also have a 90% daily attendance rate by workers, while Philadelphia’s average attendance rate over the last year was 70%.
Beyond Snipes’ servant-leadership principles, there are other lessons to be learned. We need leaders who aren’t afraid to invest in the technology for trucks. We need a department that finds it important to have open lines of communication with residents, noting when delays are going to happen, for how long, and how to properly dispose of trash. And we need open communication with workers on expectations for them.
When I was a sanitation worker in Philadelphia, I never saw Commissioner Carlton Williams. I had to Google his name to see what he looked like. It felt as if the department heads here had no plan to deal with the increase or how to keep workers safe. When I got to work I often encountered a bunch of confusion, and found myself waiting to see if I was picking up trash or recycling that day. I remember getting to work at 6:45 a.m. and not getting an assignment until 11:30 because there weren’t enough people at work, or getting sent to another part of the city just to come back to my original route because there was a miscommunication with leadership.
We also need leaders to develop programs that will help get litter off the ground. Mayor Jim Kenney had to walk back his promise to have citywide street sweeping by 2023, though the city is expanding its pilot program. The Streets Department does have “The Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee,” meant to run the block cleanups for the city, be a resource for block captains, and organize events all year long to keep Philadelphia beautiful. But I’ve spoken to a few block captains who say that they are less than satisfied with the committees’ ability to be a resource. One block captain said it took three months for the city to drop off paperwork and supplies she requested for a cleanup. Right now, I’m teaming up with a friend to make an app, getglitterapp.com, that we hope will help pay people to clean blocks in the city, since some residents are doing that work for free anyway.
More Philadelphians have to play their part, too. For the trash to get on the ground someone has to put it there. While stores are supposed to have a can in front of the store, many don’t follow that rule. And throwing trash on the ground has been normalized in this city. It’s time to raise the standards in all neighborhoods. Once we get to a point where everyone in Philadelphia is on the same page of saying no to litter, we as a collective can begin to address the other branches of this problem.
Change has to be now. Philadelphians deserve to live in a clean city.
Terrill Haigler is the creator of the @_yafavtrashman Instagram page and a former sanitation worker for the City of Philadelphia.