Rats. Roaches. Maggots. Flies. Rotting food falling out of ripped bags.
Last week, I joined a team of sanitation workers on their regular route. On our first block, a rat ran from under the trash. Most bags and cans were lined with maggots and flies. At another stop, mounds of debris covered the ground, and roaches were crawling on the trash and along the entire sidewalk.
Our sanitation workers have been working even harder than usual this year. Some report working 15 or 16 days straight. Others say they don’t have enough PPE, which is why I worked with Home Depot to donate 1,000 masks and 50 bottles of hand sanitizer.
I know it is frustrating to have trash sitting out on our streets and sidewalks past collection day, but the truth is we all play a role in the trash problem in our city.
Many of us purchase, use, and dispose of products without any thought to our contribution to the growing waste crisis around the world. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 2017, 267.8 million tons of trash were generated in the United States, nearly triple the amount of municipal solid waste generated in 1960 and contributing significantly to climate change.
Nationally, household waste is up 30%. In Philadelphia, weekly increases are sometimes as high as 50%. In a recent Inquirer article, sanitation worker Terrill Haigler said: “It usually takes 10 or 12 double-sided blocks to fill the truck, now it’s four or five blocks because the trash is built up because all the residents are home now.”
The majority of landfilled waste is made up of paper/paperboard, food, plastics, yard trimmings, and metals, all items that can be composted or recycled. They all contribute to a massive waste crisis facing our world. Solving it will require economy-wide changes to alter supply chains, create new and better markets for recyclables and reuse, eliminate single-use items, invest in large-scale composting, modernize our collection process, and improve working conditions across the industry.
As chair of the Committee on the Environment, I have recently called together a wide range of environmental advocates and community organizations to participate in advisory subgroups that are discussing legislative ideas to address environmental racism and climate change and evaluating these large-scale solutions.
Meanwhile, one immediate way to start fixing our waste crisis is to reduce waste at the source and reuse items as much as possible.
At home, my children and I have practiced waste reduction by regrowing food from scraps, like our beloved scallions. Garbage disposals and composting also keep food waste out of the trash. Single-use items can be replaced with reusable ones. Many common household items can be easily reused: cardboard boxes for future shipping needs, moving, or storage; and washed glass and plastic containers for many different purposes.
Guidance and resources on composting are available at cleanphl.org. City sanitation centers are open and accepting drop-offs. Local reuse stores take donations — a great place to take the remnants of your home improvement projects. The Resource Exchange even has a map to find local disposal, recycling, and reuse options for almost any item you can imagine.
For items that do need to go out to the curb, follow the Streets Department’s Curb Your Waste guidance by using sturdy bags that don’t exceed the 40-pound limit, and placing garbage in a covered container with handles facing the street. If you see someone not doing this, or exceeding the curbside limits, engage with them or your block captain. The city is also hiring temporary workers to help.
I know how frustrating the past few months have been, but times of crisis give us the opportunity to make positive change. I hope you will join me in changing our waste management practices together. This is a first step to eradicating environmental racism, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and supporting a new local economy that prioritizes waste reduction and materials reuse.
Katherine Gilmore Richardson is serving her first term as an at-large member of City Council. She is the chair of the Committee on the Environment.