'Excuse me, I think you dropped this.' How Philly residents confront litterers

Ernest Gardner rakes trash in a vacant lot on North 19th Street in North Central Philadelphia on Feb. 16 2018. Gardner does not own the property. A neighbor who was tired of seeing the litter hired him to clean it up.

You’ve probably seen it happen: A driver pulls up at a red light and unloads his cabin of empty water bottles onto the sidewalk before zooming away. A kid finishes his Wawa hoagie and tosses the wrapper at the base of a tree. The neighbor drags her garbage bags around the corner and dumps them there, days before trash pickup.

In a city so synonymous with litter, some people see these sorts of civic offenses and suffer them in silent frustration. Others engage.

“I confront,” said Loretta Lupo Tague of Point Breeze. “My husband thinks I’ll be shot one day, but I can’t help myself. … The reactions I’ve seen have been mixed. Some people sheepishly pick up what I point out they dropped — youngsters are more likely to do this — and others defy my taunts.”

The official suggestion from Keep Philadelphia Beautiful’s Michelle Feldman is to not confront litterers, for safety reasons. “We don’t want to put anyone in a dangerous situation,” Feldman said. The nonprofit partners with community groups on cleanups and sends volunteers into schools to talk to students about keeping sidewalks and streets litter-free.

Feldman said that if someone decides to strike up a conversation with a litterer, it’s best to find a way into the conversation that’s relatable to the person.

“You can come at it from an economic development angle, neighborhood pride, the environment, community cohesion,” Feldman said. “We recommend to figure out where someone is coming from and address it from that place.”

We put out a call, and fed-up Philadelphians told us how they react:

Return to sender.

Several readers said they pretend as if the offender dropped the trash accidentally and then politely hand it back.

Rob Swift, 32, was walking through Passyunk Square recently when he saw a driver pull up and start emptying out his car in front of a family barbecuing on their sidewalk. “He’s taking trash and soda and bags and just dumping it all right in front of them,” Swift said.

As the man moved to clean out his backseat, Swift collected the garbage on the sidewalk and dumped it inside the guy’s passenger side window. When the driver realized what was happening, he started cursing at Swift, got in his car and sped off, throwing garbage out of the window as he went.

“It was insane,” said Swift, who has a purple belt in jiu-jitsu. “But I kind of feel like people need to call each other out on it. Obviously there’s dangerous people in Philadelphia, but it’s just shocking how casual people are about it.”

Another reader reported chasing down a SEPTA bus after the driver tossed a bag of garbage onto the sidewalk. One told of returning “freshly jettisoned cigarette butts” to their owner.

Guilt them, with wisdom or cute children who know better.

“I tell them there are people in this neighborhood working really hard to keep it clean, and they shouldn’t make their jobs harder,” said Dan Martino, 33, of Old Richmond. “They usually pull a stupid face and walk a little faster.”

Anna MacDonald’s 6-year-old son, Abraham, confronted a grown man who discarded a bottle at a South Philly park last year. “He shouted across the street, ‘Hey! Hey, you! I saw you throw that on the ground. You need to protect the planet!’” MacDonald said. “The guy just looked down and ignored him.”

Meet their mad disregard for the neighborhood with a Holmesian response.

Most people have to observe a litterer in the act to confront them. Frank Criniti, 65, of South Philadelphia, tracks them down by the trash they leave behind.

When Criniti, who has lived in the neighborhood since his family moved from Italy in 1958, sees a bag of garbage, he’ll open it and weed through it to find evidence of who left the mess on his pavement. He’s got a running log of names, addresses, and phone numbers of known dumpers.

Recently, Criniti found a bag with a receipt from an auto body shop listing the name, phone number, and address of a man in Claymont, Del. He called the guy. “I told him, if I catch another bag of yours, I’m calling the city, and they’ll send you a fine for $300 to $1,000,” Criniti said. The perp, who worked in Philadelphia but dumped his trash in the city on his way to the office, apologized.

“For the most part, people don’t give me attitude,” Criniti said. “I’ve been around the block a few times, people don’t bother me. If they start to, I tell them I’ll bring a container, fill it up with trash, and I’ll run it down there and dump it out in front of your house. See how you like it.”

Staff writer Michael Boren contributed to this article.