People ask me all the time:
How did trash in the city get so bad?
Who is to blame?
Why can’t my trash get picked up on time?
How do we stop people from dumping illegally?
There is no one answer to any of these questions, but there is a common factor: Residents of certain zip codes have normalized living in trash-infested neighborhoods.
The zip-code connection
To the outside looking in, it can seem like the people in low-income communities, including communities of color, don’t care or have no pride. I think it’s the complete opposite.
Nearly 24 percent of Philadelphians live below the poverty line—that’s more than 400,000 households of four subsisting on an annual income of $21,000 or less. This is living in survival mode. Survival mode requires prioritizing keeping food on the table, the lights on and children safe. Litter isn’t at the top of the list.
Most of these households rely on government assistance to make ends meet. But government help doesn’t include timely trash pickup. City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s office found that lower-income Brown and Black neighborhoods have an on-time trash pickup only 60 percent of the time. Higher-income majority-White neighborhoods, however, have their trash picked up on-time 90 percent of the time.
I have been saying for two years now: We can have a litter-free Philly by 2025. It’s going to take all of us to clean Philadelphia
What does that say to the people who live in the 60 percent? It says that they are less-than, unseen, forgotten about, unworthy of equity, undeserving of living on clean streets. The litter outside their homes perpetuates the cycle of poverty by silently instilling feelings of worthlessness.
When I see trash not getting picked up on time, I see intentional disinvestment in Philly’s poorest communities. These neighborhoods also lack trash cans, street sweeping programs, trees and green spaces—everything that makes a place look and feel clean, respectable, respected. No wonder people who illegally dump go there. They figure they can just add to the trash they already see.
I picture the answer to Philly’s trash as shaped like a triangle. Its three sides are residents, local leadership and the Streets Department. All the sides have to say yes to a cleaner Philadelphia. All sides need to do more to stop the current trash epidemic.
Here’s what we need to do
First, we need the Streets Department to step in—and in a big way.
The Streets Department must step up its response to illegal dumping. We need a task force of 500 city workers dedicated to cleaning and preventing illegal dumping within city limits.
Also, make reporting illegal dumping easier by setting up a direct phone number citizens can call to report dump sites. Workers can come to inspect the sites and install cameras monitored by shift workers around the clock. The city can hand out fines, maybe even jail time, to violators. Too many people come from outside Philly to dump inside Philly. Our citizens deserve better than that.
We also need some new anti-litter, pro-Earth advertising. When I was growing up, there were so many campaigns. “Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful” and “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!” were on TV, buses, billboards, trashcans, in the mail and taught in school. It was everywhere. We need to get back to that, but with social media. We need to teach our children that littering is bad.
To the outside looking in, it can seem like the people in low-income communities, including communities of color, don’t care or have no pride. I think it’s the complete opposite
Second, Philly’s six sanitation centers should start to accept construction waste up to a certain weight. Small and local haulers could acquire city permits to dump for a reasonable flat rate. This would at least give people with large amounts of trash to dispose of more accessible options, so they wouldn’t have to dump illegally.
The City also needs to hire another 2,500 sanitation workers. Get more people collecting trash, on time, in every zip code. Give workers brooms, shovels, trash cans on wheels, gloves and boots. Split the city into zones, and have these new hires sweep down blocks and collect litter—while paying them a living wage.
Third, as much as possible, residents must take responsibility and not add to the trash that’s already on the ground. We must take our neighborhoods back: Sweep blocks, put out trash cans, keep watch, raise the standard. If one person on every block decided to clean the block once a month, if local businesses added trash cans to every corner, if our kids knew that littering is bad, there would be a shift for sure. It’s easier said than done, but the longer we wait, the worse it’s going to get.
I have been saying for two years now: We can have a litter-free Philly by 2025. It’s going to take all of us to clean Philadelphia, all sides of the triangle. Let’s stop pointing fingers at each other. Let’s just put on our boots, roll up our sleeves, and get it done.
We are stronger together. Let everyone who reads this agree to say yes to a clean Philadelphia.
On Saturday, April 23 at 9 a.m., Ya Fav Trashman hosts an Earth Day picking-up-litter 5K party-walk at Lehigh and Kensington along one of the city’s most trashed sections to clean up, for sure, but also to raise awareness about environmental justice, groove out to a live DJ, and, presumably, go viral. Pre-registration required. Find more Earth Day events in our guide to things to do in Philly this weekend.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.
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Terrill Haigler. Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce