If there’s a lot of trash on your block, you’re not alone. Philly has a serious trash issue — so much so that the city spends about $48 million a year to deal with it. And we’ve also been facing trash collection problems since the beginning of the pandemic.
But there is something you can do in your own neighborhood to help spiff it up a bit: Organize or participate in a block cleanup. Yes, we know you didn’t put the trash there, and you shouldn’t have to clean it, but sometimes, you’ve got to take matters into your own hands.
Planning a successful cleanup requires a lot of organization, thought, and work — but these efforts can give you a cleaner place to live, and bring a little more community to your block.
Here’s everything you need to know to pull it off, including how to get free supplies, and tips from community organizers on how to get your neighbors involved.
» READ MORE: Trash piling up? Here's where you can take it.
If your block has a block captain
Block captains have access to help from the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee (PMBC), part of the Streets Department. PMBC can help block captains with supplies, corralling volunteers, and picking up the trash you collect.
PMBC holds scheduled cleanups for each area of the city on Saturdays throughout the spring and summer. Block captains can participate in them, or schedule their own by contacting their police district’s clean block officer — basically a program representative — about three weeks ahead of time.
Clean block officers can get you such supplies as work gloves, trash bags, rakes, brooms, and fliers announcing the cleanup. Supplies are generally delivered, and they typically don’t need to be returned.
If you’re cleaning on a weekday, it’s a good idea to schedule it as close as possible to your usual trash day, as PMBC doesn’t promise a special collection, says program administrator Dawn Woods.
Plus, blocks that have been organized for at least two years can participate in PMBC’s Clean Block Contest, in which your block can win up to $1,000 in prize money for future beautification projects. And even if your block doesn’t win, you can still get $150 just for participating.
Getting block cleanup supplies from the city of Philadelphia
The city’s Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP) has a Community Partnership Program that can lend you cleaning supplies if your block doesn’t have a captain. The city will also pick up the trash you collect. And it’s open to pretty much anyone.
“You can be one person; it can be an organization; it can be as business association,” says deputy managing director Tom Conway, who oversees CLIP. “Anybody that wants to clean up, we will assist.”
To get help from CLIP, fill out a request online — at least three or four days before your planned cleanup, Conway says. You’ll need to know how many volunteers you have and what gear you need. You’ll have to pick up the cleaning supplies from CLIP’s warehouse at 4000 N. American St.
You can get bags as well as rakes, shovels, brooms, litter grabbers, and curb edgers — which are lent, so you’ll need to drop them back off at the warehouse when you’re done. And you should need only one piece of equipment per volunteer, so try not to “order like an octopus,” as Conway puts it.
How to get volunteers for your block cleanup
Getting help starts with building community and relationships with your neighbors, and making them feel that a better, cleaner block is possible — especially in communities that may “feel like they’ve been forgotten about,” says Terrill Haigler, better known as @_yafavtrashman on Instagram. Sometimes, all that takes is regular communication.
“There is a total disconnect in the function of living next to someone and just speaking. Something clicked in us where we made that normal, and we have to un-normalize that,” Haigler says. “You can raise expectations in any community by just showing them how important they are.”
Other tips for mobilizing your neighbors to help include:
Get the word out. Haigler says he advertises a cleanup for at least three weeks, and gets dozens of volunteers. He also suggests posting fliers of your event online, and tagging larger brands and organizations to help get the word out.
Post your fliers in real life — especially by giving them directly to your neighbors, says John Landers, a longtime clean block officer with the PMBC in the first and third districts. Kelly Offner, executive director of Keep Philadelphia, says that posting your fliers in busy public places such as the grocery store, rec centers, and local parks can help, too.
Incentivize your cleanup by giving away T-shirts, prizes for collecting the most pieces of trash, or simple food such as doughnuts or ice cream to help sweeten the deal. Haigler is even working with the Glitter app, which will pay folks to keep their blocks clean by making them “block tenders” who clean up reported litter, he says.
Do something fun, such as a block party, to jump-start your community, Landers says. Those events can break the ice and get you and your neighbors talking about how to tackle your block’s trash problem together.
How to plan a block cleanup
Give yourself plenty of time to organize. Here are some things to consider:
Scout the area beforehand. If you’re cleaning a vacant lot filled with a lot of old car tires or large items, you might need to call 311 to report it and have it hauled away, Offner says. Haigler says that can help you decide how much help you need so you don’t over-complicate volunteer efforts.
Think about separating trash and recycling, if zero waste is your goal.
“You don’t have to do all of it on your first try,” Offner says. “Your first one can be, ‘OK, let’s see if we can get anybody to come out here.’ ”
Think about other supplies you’ll need. There are some things you might need to provide on your own. Nic Esposito, former Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet director and current East Kensington block captain, says that you might want to have a sharps container (or even a used milk jug or laundry detergent bottle) for used needles. Supplies such as water and snacks for volunteers are good, too, especially during warmer months.
Have a backup plan for trash
If you do have a trash pickup scheduled, Esposito suggests getting an agreement in writing. The last thing you want is the trash to sit there for days because of miscommunication between the city and organizers.
But there are a few ways to deal with this if it happens:
Take the trash to one of the city’s Sanitation Convenience Centers and dispose of it yourself (call first; centers don’t accept an unlimited amount of trash).
Store the trash until your regular trash day, recommends Logan Welde, a Clean Air Council staff attorney and Ludlow-based block captain. You might even be able to contact your local Council member for help getting the trash removed, Welde adds.
Local business also may have dumpsters with extra room and be willing to help.
Each volunteer might be able to take a bag and put it out with the regular trash.
Whatever you do, it’s important to not leave the trash just sitting around. “People see a pile of trash, and they throw their trash on it,” Welde says. “It’s not good for the block.”
Dawn Woods, administrator for the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee.
Terrill Haigler, Philadelphia sanitation worker and organizer known as @_yafavtrashman on Instagram.
John Landers, PMBC clean block officer for the first and third districts.
Tom Conway, deputy managing director and head of CLIP.
Kelly Offner, executive director of Keep Philadelphia Beautiful.
Logan Welde, staff attorney with the Clean Air Council.
Nic Esposito, director of engagement for Circular Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.