This Saturday, the Philadelphia Streets Department will rally thousands of Philadelphians across the city to take part in the annual Philly Spring Cleanup. I will not be one of those people.
This decision pains me on many levels, the primary one being that I love to volunteer. Along with the full wardrobe of volunteer shirts I have accumulated over the years from the many events I have taken part in, I’ve also served as my neighborhood organization’s president in Kensington, and I currently volunteer as the comanager of a community farm.
The other point of pain is that just a year ago, I was serving as the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet director. During my four years in this position, I not only implored Philadelphians to take part in the Philly Spring Cleanup, but I also worked to craft policy and programs that would sustain these cleaning efforts.
That all came to an end in June, when the Kenney administration completely zeroed out the budget for the cabinet due to COVID-19 budget cuts, costing the city a cohesive and effective strategy to address the city’s litter and illegal dumping issues. (Some of the cabinet’s zero waste duties were absorbed by the Office of Sustainability.)
Due to this complete lack of leadership and strategic vision, I cannot in good faith support asking the residents of Philadelphia to clean their city when their own government cannot support their efforts.
Just last week, 6ABC reported on illegal dumping that is once again spiraling out of control. When asked why this was happening, the Streets Department resorted to its tired line that, yes, it could do better, but if residents would just stop dumping, this problem would go away.
What this response fails to recognize is that illegal dumping is a complex and systemic issue requiring intragovernmental collaboration to solve. Before the cabinet was created, there was a serious lack of coordination among enforcement agencies to stop dumping. By fostering collaboration among the District Attorney’s Office, Philadelphia Police Department detectives, and other agencies, we quadrupled annual illegal dumping prosecutions from 2016-2019, with a focus on large contractors who were dumping in some of our communities that have the least resources.
But as with many social issues, you can’t arrest your way out of this problem. The cabinet worked to pass legislation that regulated how waste was being hauled off construction sites and how tire shops proved they were disposing of tires correctly. And there would be a lot less illegal dumping if we had fewer vacant lots that presented a dumping opportunity. So the cabinet was coordinating across departments on innovative vacant land activation programs to disrupt illegal dumping patterns. All of these efforts were driven by data to make the most informed decision on these policies.
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Through these efforts, illegal dumping dropped by 40% throughout the city between 2016 and 2019, saving taxpayers millions in cleanup costs. But in a decision to save $175,000 in the city budget by ending the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, the city is once again facing an illegal dumping crisis that I am confident is costing the city millions of dollars. And if that lack of fiduciary responsibility wasn’t bad enough, they are still asking residents to clean up streets and vacant lots that will become dumping grounds again in a month.
Though I’m going to sit out this year’s Spring Cleanup, I’ll still keep cleaning up my block. I’m even going to keep managing the public trash can on my corner that I signed up to maintain. I just ask that the Kenney administration hold up its end of the bargain by actually investing in effective policies and strategies that address the systemic issues of litter and dumping if they’re going to keep asking the good people of this city to help clean it up.
Nic Esposito is head of cities at the global litter intelligence company Litterati. @NicEsposito1