Back in the 18th century, the smell of burning garbage sickened Thomas Jefferson so bad that he started paying folks to burn their trash across the river. (So much for environmentalism.) In 1757, Benjamin Franklin designed the first colonial waste-management program to fix the putrid streets of this city. And since, we’ve tried just about everything, including pigs, to shrink our slop. The endurance of Filthadelphia is strong.
Philadelphia mayors of present, both real and imaginary, have noted that litter is a civic stain on Philly’s otherwise resurgent reputation as an international city. Mayor-elect Jim Kenney wants to bring back street-sweeping and reconstitute the city’s anti-litter campaign. At The Philadelphia Citizen’s event in September, “Athletes & Their Cities,” Connor Barwin said that if he was mayor, the first thing he’d look to fix would be not the schools, not the traffic, not the police … but the trash.
Citizen columnist Jeremy Nowak has advised Kenney to send a signal right away that “you’re an action-oriented leader.” Declaring war on our trash epidemic could send that very signal, and be popular, as well. There is no pro-litter lobby, after all.
Here are three ways Kenney can move the needle on litter:
Pay as You Throw (PAYT). The basic concept here is straight out of Econ 101: Financial incentives can alter social behavior. In this case, changing the way we charge people for waste collection can lead to higher rates of recycling and conservation. And that, in turn, should lead to less litter ending up on our streets.
One study of cities that have converted to “Pay As You Throw” found that, on average, the amount of garbage disposed fell by 17 percent and recycling rates shot up.
Right now, if you own a commercial establishment or multi-unit building that receives municipal trash removal, a $300 fee is imposed on you annually. But buildings with more than six units, along with manufacturers, wholesalers and other large-scale premises are ineligible. Which means that the vast majority of the city gets garbage collection for free or pays a private hauler. But what if you received a bill for how much trash you threw out—but not how much you recycled—instead? You’d probably be a lot more careful about not throwing plastic bottles in the black bins and food waste in the blue bins, no?
That’s Pay as You Throw in a nutshell. It’s a policy that has been implemented in more than 25 percent of municipalities nationwide, including Minneapolis, Seattle, and Austin. There are a few models for PAYT. One is to use distinctive-colored prepaid bags that become the only ones municipal waste haulers will touch. Your “bill” is a product of how many bags you need to buy. There’s a PAYT system in which different cart sizes are offered—with residents getting charged more for the larger receptacles (and any additional bags left curbside). Then, the most precise and efficient form of this incentivized system, weight-based PAYT. High-density trash compactors are rigged with a scale that measures each household’s garbage. The haulers scan a unique barcode on each standard-issue receptacle, weigh the trash, crunch it up, and mark the poundage in a computer system that will generate a bill pertaining to each individual building.
A 2006 study of cities that had converted to PAYT found that on average, the amount of garbage disposed fell by 17 percent and recycling rates shot up, although separate studies have recorded both higher and lower figures. Regardless, any amount of decline suggests that when people are forced to pay proportional rates for how much they throw out, they start conserving trash as they would any utility, whether that’s air conditioning in the summer or heat in the winter.
At least in an ideal world that happens. Communities that have adopted PAYT also report increased illegal dumping, which accounts for a not-insignificant amount of the reduced collection. There’s also the problem of people compacting garbage into fewer bags (known as the “Seattle Stump”) to avoid paying more, wherever PAYT is levied per bag or bin size. While most municipalities offer low-income residents some form of aid or price reductions in the PAYT system, there are also concerns about the additional costs that residents will pay, particularly people with large families.
When Mayor Nutter pushed for the policy back in 2008, he was steamrolled by unsympathetic City Council members. (Luckily, Nutter found ways to triple our recycling rates nonetheless.) But there’s reason to think PAYT could move the meter on recycling even more, reduce household waste and save the city money on trips to the dump. When Chicago looked at PAYT in 2011, it estimated the savings from a 17 percent reduction in waste would total over $7 million. If Philly generated just one-third of those projected savings, it could pay for more enforcement of illegal dumping and cleanup efforts to counter the miscreant behavior. Perhaps the reason PAYT died so quickly a few years ago had more to do with Nutter’s icy relationship with Council than the policy itself. Kenney’s alliance with Council President Clarke might just position him to get something like this passed in a pilot form, as Austin did at first, to at least give it a chance.
Philadelphia is the largest municipality in the country without a comprehensive street-cleaning program for residential streets. We did have it about a decade ago, but, east of Broad Street, residents refused to move their cars, and the PPA gave up on issuing fines.
Restore the Street Department’s Budget. Last year, a City Comptroller’s report found that 80,000 homes in any given week have their trash picked up later than the scheduled time, as on-time collection rates for trash dropped to 85 percent in fiscal year 2015. That’s compared to 96 percent just two years ago. Before you blame the precipitous drop on dwindling performance from the Streets Department, there are a few important things you should realize.
First, the Street Department’s operating budget has been reduced by more than 50 percent over the last 25 years, when adjusted to 2015 dollars. Plus, the department is in need of capital money as well. Its fleet of high-density compactors—trucks that simultaneously serve as our snow-removal tanks in winter—have been dying a slow death. When I spoke to the Streets Department this past spring, roughly one-third of their fleet was out of commission or in the shop. And that aging, beat-up fleet is not even large enough to begin with. As the Comptroller’s report illustrates, the city needs more than 320 compactors to fully service trash collection and with the addition of 30 new vehicles this past summer, the department still remains dozens shy of that threshold.
There is $7 million per year in the City of Philadelphia Budget until 2021 for new trash-compactor trucks. While that would get close to restoring the fleet back to levels where it needs to be, the next step for improving trash collection and snow removal will be getting the operating budget to where it was 15 years ago, when it was 25 percent higher. The Streets Department is in dire need of this money to also bring the city up-to-date on things like repaving roads. Money doesn’t solve everything, but it’s no wonder our streets are so stinky when we’ve cut budgets so drastically.
Street Cleaning. Kenney is onto something. Philadelphia is the largest municipality in the country without a comprehensive street-sweeping program for residential streets. Operationally, street-sweeping is only estimated to cost in the realm of $3 million to $4 million a year for the city (with start-up costs for the vehicles projected to cost $18 million). Considering how much people complain about litter, that’s a drop in the bucket for the city’s overall budget. So why don’t we have it? Well, we did have it about a decade ago, but our parochial protectionism over residential parking got in the way. East of Broad Street, residents refused to move their cars, and eventually the PPA gave up on issuing fines to folks after City Council members heard vociferous complaining. The street-cleaning program went poof.
But with a new mayor on the way and an increasingly environmentally-conscious city, there’s a renewed push for street-cleaning. In an interview with The Next Mayor back in June, Kenney indicated the program might be optional for residential areas that would prefer to keep their parking spots. “We’d have to have more neighborhood input and have people buy into and maybe just clean the streets where people are willing to move their cars,” he said.
Perhaps that’s more politically palatable for some people to swallow, but it would be a mistake to make the program optional. In Chicago, the gross annual intake from fines associated with people not moving their cars for street-cleaning ($15 million per year) adds up to nearly twice as much as the program costs overall. Punitive fines are never popular, but if Philly relaunched street-cleaning and actually enforced it, the program could be revenue-neutral. And in the long run, it could go a long way towards unclogging our gutters.
Header Photo: Patrick Clark