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How Philly Fights Illegal Dumping

Why the dumpers are winning, and how the City can beat them

Let’s start with a tale of illegal dumping.

Imagine you’re a general contractor from the Main Line, always looking for ways to gain an edge on the competition. One day, an employee tells you he “knows a guy” who will haul away your construction debris for half the price you normally pay. Sounds like a no-brainer, you think. You do it.

Next week, two guys show up to one of your demo sites in an unmarked dump truck. Like their truck, they’re a bit worse for the wear, but they’re on time, get the work done and, sure enough, charge you a fraction of what you’d been paying, in cash. You don’t ask questions and forget all about them until, two years later, you see their mugshots on your Twitter timeline.

Our system of illegal dumping enforcement is a sprawling interdepartmental mess, and it’s astonishingly ineffective.

Turns out, these gents were arrested on suspicion of running an unlicensed junk removal operation. Seems they charged such low removal fees because, instead of paying fees to use a legal dump, they hauled their loads to poor Philly neighborhoods and dumped their trucks into vacant lots or on poorly lit, un-patrolled side streets.

This is a semi-fictional variation on an all-too-common theme. Whether the scheme implicates a small junk removal business, wealthy out-of-county contractor, or individual city resident — none of whom has a monopoly on illegal dumping — all parties involved are looking to save a bit of time or money.

How bad is Philly’s illegal dumping?

The scale of illegal dumping in Philadelphia is mind-boggling. Here are some numbers from Streets Department Commissioner Carlton Williams’ recent testimony at the #JustServicesPHL hearing on illegal dumping:

  • In 2021, the Streets Department paid $8.3 million to remove 7,171 tons of illegally dumped materials, plus 83,600 tires, from 1,309 sites.
  • That’s up from 6,377 tons and 30,800 tires from 2,152 sites in 2020.
  • The Streets Department was so outmatched by the volume of dumping that it requested an additional $2 million in the FY2023 budget to double its removal capacity, from a single crew to two.

Commissioner Williams also pointed out that, while increased removal capacity is good, we’re wasting resources unless we simultaneously increase prevention capacity. Many of the dump sites the Street Department monitors are “hotspots” that “have to be addressed, repeatedly, within weeks or at times, days, as offenders use the sites to constantly dump debris,” Williams said.

The true goal, then, is to stop people from treating poorer sections of the city like trash cans for financial gain — and Williams rightly observed that, “enforcement plays a key role in minimizing illegal dumping.”

Seems only right we take a closer look at the city’s existing system of enforcement.

How illegal dumping happens

Rewind the clock from when you found out your junk haulers had been locked up. How did their unhappy portraits end up on your timeline? At first, they were cautious, dumping only in areas they triple-checked to make sure the coast was clear — no cameras, no patrol officers, no civilian foot traffic. But the more they dumped, the more they let their guard down.

Maybe, after a few 3-1-1 requests from the same location, the Streets Department installed a camera, and the dumpers didn’t notice. Or, maybe Streets gave word to a detective, who took a late-night drive to the area and caught the dumpers in the act, or poked around in a freshly dumped pile and found some identity-betraying materials. Maybe a block captain got fed up with the filth, hid around the corner, took down the makeshift dump truck’s license plate number, and tipped off the police.

And with this, our possibilities have more or less been exhausted — the only ways illegal dumpers in Philly typically get caught is on camera, in the act, or tracked down based on clues they leave behind and/or civilian tips.

How illegal dumping enforcement works (or doesn’t)

As of May 5, 2022, the City had 188 surveillance cameras installed in known dumping hotspots, with 80 more set for installment in the coming months. These cameras are monitored manually by both the Streets Department and the Police Department. The Streets Department employs three full-time staff whose sole responsibility is to monitor this surveillance footage. The Police Department has an Environmental Crimes Unit (ECU) with two full-time detectives.

When the staff monitoring the Streets Department cameras sees that a garbage pile has appeared, they look back through the footage for a recording of the perpetrators, flag the incident, and send it to a manager who reviews it with Kyle Lewis, director of the Cleaner Public Spaces Enforcement Committee (CPSEC).

If the incident warrants further investigation, Lewis sends it along to the ECU detectives. If the detectives need further assistance with the investigation, they may look to the Inspector General, the Law Department, License & Inspections, and/or the District Attorney’s Office for help.

If an investigation is fruitful, the perpetrators can be prosecuted criminally or civilly. The burden of proof is higher for criminal cases, so the CPSEC has recently moved to diversify the avenues for civil prosecution and intensify the affiliated penalties.

In 2021 … there were 220 illegal dumping incidents assigned for investigation. Of these assignments, 13 led to Code Notice Violations, four led to warrants, and one — yes, one — led to an arrest.

An ordinance introduced by City Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker — and drafted in coordination with Streets and the Law Department — makes property owners liable for materials hauled from their property and dumped illegally, in addition to those who actually do the dumping. And, whereas a single load was previously subject to a maximum fine of $5,000, Parker’s ordinance makes every individual large item of debris within that load subject to the previous maximum — such that one load of 20 tires could cost the liable parties up to $100,000.

The Philadelphia Code also contains a provision specifying that “individuals who provide information that leads to a judicial determination that one or more individuals have violated the prohibition on short dumping” are to be paid a total award of no less than $500. CPSEC Director Kyle Lewis said that talks with the Managing Director about revamping this reward program are currently underway.

Philadelphia’s system of illegal dumping enforcement, then, involves five full-time city employees — three from Streets, two from the PD — who require part-time assistance from Streets’ upper management, the IG, L&I, the Law Department, and the DA. Councilmembers draft legislation to improve the system, and there’s a sprawling interdepartmental committee devoted to that same end. This system is propped up by a network of surveillance cameras that, if it has not already, is poised to surpass 200 in number. The system’s legislative backbone also incentivizes third-party civilian assistance with illegal dumping investigations.

Where has all this gotten us?

Enforcement results

In 2021, whether from camera monitoring, other detective work, or civilian tips, there were 220 illegal dumping incidents assigned for investigation. Of these assignments, 13 led to Code Notice Violations, four led to warrants, and one — yes, one — led to an arrest.

According to data from the DA Office’s DATA Lab, 25 cases related to “littering/illegal dumping” were working their way through the court system, some presumably left unresolved from prior years. Asked whether it was possible to differentiate between cases involving mere littering and those involving illegal dumping, the DA’s Office failed to respond. In any case, nine of these cases were dismissed outright (possibly due to pandemic-related stress on the court system) and 16 were left open. Moreover, no one — not the DATA Lab, not Streets, not the Law Department — keeps track of any information regarding the nature of illegal dumping cases, i.e., what kinds of parties were involved (wealthy contractors, small junk hauling operations, etc.).

So, in 2021, Philadelphia’s system of illegal dumping enforcement made one arrest and found zero people guilty. It also generated absolutely no useful data regarding the dumping behavior it investigated. A year when 14,342,000 pounds of garbage were dumped illegally on the most vulnerable streets of our city, and a sprawling interdepartmental system of enforcement with nothing to show for it.

And so, those fellas from our story go on to dump another day.

Ideas for improvement

Let’s start with a few striking juxtapositions. In 2021, the Streets Department cleaned up 1,309 dump sites and used 188 cameras to monitor dumping. It had three employees monitoring those 188 cameras. It also saw significant declines in dumping activity where cameras were installed, but recorded a massive spike in volume of material dumped citywide. There are a few possible lessons that we can extract here:

  • We do not have enough cameras.
  • We should not install visible cameras and then just leave them there when dumpers inevitably move elsewhere.
  • We might not have enough employees monitoring the cameras.

Accepting that surveillance cameras … can only ever form part of an effective enforcement system, it follows that we may also need to bolster both officer and civilian involvement.

Yes, the City is installing more cameras. But whether the total number is 188 or 268, both are a fraction of known dumpsites (the Street department addressed 1,309 such sites in 2021 and 2,151 in 2020), which are themselves a fraction of possible dumpsites. Cameras are static; dumpers are dynamic. It follows that we should install cameras that are either easily moveable or not-so-easily spotted by dumpers.

Asked whether the camera monitors were overwhelmed by the volume of footage, Kyle Lewis says she did not think so … not quite a definitive no. It’s also worth noting that, while Lewis was generous with her time during interviews, the Streets Department repeatedly ignored my requests to speak directly with the camera monitors themselves.

Regardless, it’s clear these cameras are failing to provide their expected enforcement value. If it’s the inherent difficulty of manual monitoring, there’s a solution for that. Back in 2019, a group of Penn researchers laid the groundwork for an affordable computer program that automatically sorts through camera footage to flag dumping activity and alert the relevant authorities.

Alternatively, if we just need another employee or two, that’s an easy enough fix. The same is true if we simply need more cameras and in different locations. All these unknowns present us with another common-sense next step: a thorough audit of surveillance camera efficacy and camera monitoring efficiency.

Accepting that surveillance cameras — even leveraged to perfection — can only ever form part of an effective enforcement system, it follows that we may also need to bolster both officer and civilian involvement.

We could have a small team of unarmed Streets Department patrol officers on bike or foot to monitor the neighborhoods illegal dumpers frequently target. We could also do a far better job advertising the civilian reward program.

And, if we had better data on the nature of dumping behavior, we could tailor policy to the most common kinds of dumping — e.g. perhaps wealthier contractors require a different enforcement approach than smaller junk haulers.

Perhaps what’s needed most of all is someone whose full-time job is to devise solutions like these, not the little czar we had before, who dealt with all aspects of trash, including collection, recycling and compost, but someone tasked solely with solving illegal dumping.

Our system of illegal dumping enforcement is a sprawling interdepartmental mess, and it’s astonishingly ineffective. The Streets Department could house a Deputy Commissioner of Enforcement to bring order to the chaos. The figure could even be an elected official — a DA of illegal dumping.

If we’re going to reduce the millions of pounds of garbage dumped illegally in our streets every year, we need an effective system of enforcement. We won’t get from zero convictions to respectability with a haphazard, piecemeal approach. We need a powerful city official whose sole purpose is illegal dumping enforcement. We need someone to change our tale from a never-ending story of dumping and removal to a city with clean streets, once and for all.


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Illegal tire dump site cleanup. Photo by Philadelphia Department of Streets

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