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No need for study: Don’t take away our trash cans | Mike Newall

The study proved the obvious: when you take away the trash cans, people dump stuff on the ground.

Eric Kramer is a season maintenance worker who cleans up Campbell Square Park. He and his pals wondered why the city took their trashcans.
Eric Kramer is a season maintenance worker who cleans up Campbell Square Park. He and his pals wondered why the city took their trashcans.Read moreErin Blewett / Staff Photographer

They buried Dolores Bowers with her trash picker.

What else would she have taken with her to eternity?

Consider the tale of the beloved 84-year-old from Port Richmond, who died two weeks ago after 15 years spent hefting trash bags, collecting litter, and repainting benches as a seasonal city worker in Campbell Park in Port Richmond.

Campbell Park was her neighborhood  — that's how dedicated some Philadelphians are in the battle against trash on their streets.

Keeping the park clean never felt like more of a struggle, her old neighbors said, their voices turning dark, as the grim week in the spring of 2017 when the city decided to use Dolores' stomping grounds to stage an experiment.

For two weeks, the city pulled almost all of Dolores' garbage cans from the park.

Well, that seems kind of foolish, her neighbors remember her saying, in her sweet way.

The disappearing dustbins were part of a study — The Effect of Various Public Waste Receptacle Numbers on Little and Staff Time — released by the city's Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet last week as part of its campaign to reduce litter.

The aim was to figure out whether fewer trash cans curb illegal dumping. In fairness, it's a concept that's been studied elsewhere; New York's now getting heat for trying it in Harlem.

But, in our trash-choked city, it's hard to imagine an experiment like this resulting in anything but more trash.

Which is what happened.

The people in Port Richmond who pay attention to these sorts of things were enraged. The city noted as such in its study: "A resident of Campbell Square used very obscene language in a social media post that called into question the competency of city government."

Some business owners in nearby Powers Park reported "dog owners putting dog waste in a USPS mailbox to protest the removal of receptacles." (A caveat: One dog walker there told me that some of his less decorous neighbors like to do that even when the place is lined with trash cans.)

At the risk of standing in the way of scientific progress and discovery, I have to say that there are merits to studies like this as the city tries to combat dumping.

"It's one part of moving forward and getting to a better place," said Nic Esposito, Philly's Zero Waste and Litter director. The city needs to test what's effective, he said, not just assume. Like in this case, just adding trash cans in some parks didn't decrease litter. But taking them away made things worse. The study proved the obvious: When you take away trash cans, people dump stuff on the ground.

(The study didn't cost anything, the city said. Unless, of course, you count the added annoyance of trash-traumatized residents.)

Studies like this would be easier to swallow if we were simply tinkering with our already-successful trash program, not trying to improve our failing one. Local journalists like Ryan Briggs have been writing about our trash problem for years, as something solvable. Of course, we shouldn't be heisting trash cans. We also need to start street sweeping, too. You know — the promise that Mayor Kenney ran on?

And that's where we are as a city with trash. The city is asking more of citizens without doing enough for them by supplying basic services.

"I think we recognize that this is a major issue," says Lauren Vidas, a City Council candidate in the Second District and a neighborhood advocate on the Zero Waste and Litter Commission. "But unfortunately the city has decided that living with the problem is more comfortable than doing what we need to do to actually fix it."

Over in Campbell Square, the memories of the study still sting.

Eric Kramer, an actor and adjunct theater professor at Temple, has picked up Dolores' neon vest now and a trash picker of his own. He and his pals Ed and Bernie, retirees who help keep the park clean, didn't need to read the study. They lived it: When the trash cans disappeared, people just dumped their spaghetti, rotten meat, and household trash on the park grass or curbs, where the trash cans used to sit.

"I don't know what they were trying to get out of that," Kramer said of the study.

Me neither, fellas.