In late 2020, Nic Esposito hit the streets of Philadelphia looking for printed advertisement litter. And he didn’t have to try too hard to find it.

Esposito, the former director of the city’s now-defunct Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, scoured five neighborhoods in the city between Oct. 26 and Dec. 31, and found 1,019 pieces of printed advertising litter. Roughly 60% were circulars, and another 24% were menus. You know, like the kind you probably find left on your stoop regularly.

“There were so many that were just left behind on people’s steps because they never knew they were there, or they were left at an apartment complex,” says Esposito, who is now head of cities at app company Litterati. “Then, you’ve got the ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation, where no one is responsible for it, so no one picks it up.”

And as litter adds up, it gets expensive. Philadelphia, according to one 2020 study, spends about $48 million a year to deal with our trash-strewn streets. And while it isn’t clear how much things like circulars, menus, fliers, and other printed ad materials contribute to our trash problem overall, Esposito’s study seems to suggest that they’re significant contributors.

“It’s part of this litter ecosystem that is pretty easily prevented,” says Kelly Offner, executive director of Keep Philadelphia Beautiful. “Litter begets more litter.”

There is something you can do to get fewer fliers: Sign up for the “Circular Non-Delivery Decal” program. But what does that program do? And does it actually, you know, work? Here is what you need to know:

What is the circular nondelivery decal program?

Essentially, it’s a program that lets you register your home with the Department of Licenses and Inspections to “opt out” of having advertising handouts left on your property.

Put the program’s “circular-free property” sticker on your door or window, and it should help stop, or at least reduce, the number of circulars, fliers, menus, and other handbills that you get.

Any company that still leaves you circulars can get a “Code Violation Notice” — a $100 fine — from L&I. And that applies to most kinds of handouts that you receive, minus anything delivered by the post office.

“I have my sticker on my door. It does, for the most part, work,” Esposito says. “I rarely will get pizza menus or circulars.”

The program, though, is far from new — in fact, it’s been around since 1993. But most people don’t know about it. About 13,760 people have registered for it so far, says L&I spokesperson Karen Guss. And since the department started tracking fines in 2006, it’s issued roughly 6,710.

Who’s eligible?

The program is open to both property owners and tenants, though you may want to check with your landlord before registering.

How do I sign up?

To register, fill out the online “circular non-delivery decal order form” and submit it. You’ll need to include:

  • The property address.

  • Your name and contact info (or your landlord’s, if you prefer).

  • Authorization to include your address and info on any potential Code Violation Notices (which is required for L&I to issue a fine).

If you can’t or don’t want to use the online form, you can fill out a different PDF version and email it to vending@phila.gov, or print it out and mail it to Department of Licenses and Inspections, Attention: Circular Free Property Coordinator, 2401 Walnut St., 5th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19103.

You can also request nondelivery of local newspapers by including a list of the ones you don’t want. Technically, the program doesn’t cover newspapers, Guss says, but L&I will reach out to the papers and ask that they stop delivering to your address.

L&I typically reviews applications every 10 to 14 days and then sends out decals in the mail, Guss says. So expect to wait a few weeks before your sticker arrives.

How to file a complaint

If you continue to get circulars or handbills, keep them and report violations to L&I, by email or mail. Make sure to include specific information, including:

  • Your address.

  • The date and time you received the handbill (if you don’t know exactly, estimate).

  • If you are reporting by mail, include the handbill itself (or, if it’s a bagged ad or circular, just send in the bag).

  • If you are reporting by email, include photos of the circular or handbill.

That should result in a $100 fine for the company that left it.

But if you just want the fliers to stop, Esposito suggests calling the distributor and discussing the issue with them.

“I call the circular people and I yell at them and say, ‘Don’t leave this stuff on my thing,’” he says. “And they don’t for a while, for a good amount of time. They’re pretty good about it. So, I find it more effective.”

Does this actually work?

It depends on who you ask. As Guss puts it, “feedback is mixed.”

“We hear from some folks that it helps quite a bit, and from others that it has not made much difference,” she says.

Other folks we spoke to for this article say that the program is effective — or, at least more effective than not having a sticker at all.

“Pretty much, having a sticker is your only option right now,” Offner says. “This is a good entry point. You don’t have anything to lose from trying.”

What else can I do to help?

One way to make the program more effective, says Clean Air Council staff attorney Logan Welde, is to increase the number of properties that participate. Work with block captains and neighborhood groups to organize neighbors to register, which Welde (who is a block captain himself) says he has done on his block. The Clean Air Council, he estimates, has distributed roughly 2,000 nondelivery decals across the city in recent years.

“I think there’s like two doors that don’t have them on my whole block,” Welde says. “The amount of [handbills] has drastically decreased. My block is littered otherwise, but it helped a lot. The sticker really does do a lot of good for the vendors that pay attention to them.”

From ‘opt-out’ to ‘opt in’

One way to change the nondelivery decal program is to change the legislation, Welde says. That means going from the current “opt-out” model to one that is “opt-in,” so only people who want handbills and circulars will get them (according to Esposito’s research, some seniors, for example, want circulars for their coupons).

Both Esposito and Offner say that would put the onus on distributors, rather than on individual residents.

Welde says he is working with Councilmember Derek Green’s office to draft legislation to make the program opt-in. Green says that his office is working to ensure that the proposed legislation does not violate free or commercial speech.

“We are trying to come to a resolution in order to reduce litter in the city of Philadelphia and not infringe on anyone’s Constitutional rights,” Green says.

It is not yet clear when the legislation might be introduced, or what it will look like in its final form.

» READ MORE: More Philly tips: Read our most useful stories

Expert sources: