How to fix Philly's long-running litter epidemic

Talmadge Belo points out trash in his North Philadelphia neighborhood on June 15, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )
Talmadge Belo points out trash in his North Philadelphia neighborhood on June 15, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )

This is the second in a series that The Next Mayor project is embarking on throughout the summer that looks at some of the problems facing Philadelphia's next mayor. We'll identify problems, examine why they exist, and find best practices implemented elsewhere. At the end of each piece, we'll offer a fix. Today, we tackle Philly's litter epidemic. Last week, we tackled Philly's vacant land. If you have a problem in the city that needs fixing, email us at rbriggs@philly.com.

Talmadge Belo points out trash in his North Philadelphia neighborhood on June 15, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer ) Gallery: How to fix Philly's long-running litter epidemic

The Problem:

Talmadge Belo, Jr. remembers North Philadelphia’s golden days — a time when people washed the front steps of their tidy row houses, pitched in to sweep litter off the street, and painted sidewalk curbs bright white.

These may seem like arcane rituals to most Philadelphians today, accustomed to the city’s now-filthy state. But it wasn’t always like this.

“Kids today have no thought to not throw things down on the ground,” says Belo. “But there’s still that thing about having pride in your city.”

As vice president of the Brewerytown-Sharswood Civic Association, Belo still organizes curb paintings on his 2400 block of Sharswood Street and elsewhere in the neighborhood, a tradition stretching back over 50 years. Even though he's constantly sweeping litter off his block, trash accumulates so quickly that he had to organize a block-wide cleanup before he was able to repaint the curbs last Saturday.

“The amount of litter we get, I say that people must have ‘garbage seeds’ they carry in their pockets and drop on the ground. It just comes back so fast,” said Belo, adding that he also pays a neighborhood man to sweep his block from time to time.

His neighborhood has even been documented in city sanitation surveys, called the “litter index”, as one of the most consistently trash-strewn.

Across town, in South Philadelphia’s Passyunk Square neighborhood, residents are lucky enough to enjoy the relative miracle of regular street cleaning while being part of the only major American city without a municipal street sweeping program.

The service is paid for by the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation (PARC), a non-profit that inherited a lot of money and real estate from now-defunct Citizen’s Alliance. In 2011, with a new board and management, PARC resumed street cleaning of 100 blocks in South Philly at an annual cost of $310,000, paid for in part with revenue from real estate the non-profit leases as apartments and commercial space.

A staff of five collects about 30 bags of trash per day with a mechanical sweeper. It’s still not without it share of lingering trash problems, according to PARC’s operations manager, Charles A. Johnson, Jr, who everyone calls “CJ.”

Johnson says he thinks that the litter problem has improved in recent years — he says more folks turn out for neighborhood cleanups. But he admitted that PARC has pulled a number of the public waste bins it used to provide off Passyunk Avenue because businesses and apartment dwellers were stuffing their personal garbage into the cans.

The other culprit is the city’s own sanitation crews. Johnson has to order his crews to clean up the mess they make on trash day.

“We keep everything pretty much under control until the city comes,” Johnson said. “They make our job a little harder. They’re dropping stuff and they won’t go back and pick it up. They’re throwing recycling bins everywhere.”

What we're doing now:

The Streets Department spent about $5 million out of its $170 million budget on anti-litter efforts last year. The money gets meted out through the Sanitation Division, which performed regular street sweeping until the early 2000s.

Residents angry about having to move their cars caused city officials to shut down citywide street sweeping, according Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney.

“I went through this with [former Councilman] Frank DiCicco as a South Philadelphia resident. He had a very intense street sweeping program. It was only once a week but he took so much grief for it, he stopped the program for fear of not being reelected,” Kenney said in a recent interview with Philly.com. “I can’t see why everybody should suffer as a result of the selfishness of some people that just don’t want to move their cars for a couple hours one day a week.”

Streets currently allocates much of its spending on community organizing, education and enforcement. There’s the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee (PMBC), which organizes and supplies neighborhood cleanups (15 “Clean Block” officers run the program among other duties with salaries totaling $547,000 per year and thousands more on supplies), the Keep Philadelphia Beautiful, and UnLitter Us campaign.

“PMBC organizes approximately 6,000 block cleanups annually,” Deputy Streets Commissioner Donald Carlton said, which means that the department estimates that, on average, somewhere between 16 or 17 block cleanups take place every day in Philadelphia.

The anti-litter budget also pays for the Streets & Walkways Education and Enforcement Program (SWEEP), which funds 56 uniformed workers to ride around on bikes issuing tickets for litter and sanitation violations.

That costs $2.1 million a year, and the department said that it issued 145,300 citations last year, which amounts to roughly one in every 10 Philadelphians. That number was down slightly from a high of 155,500 a year in 2013, and this year was on track for 128,000 violations.

Carlton said the decrease in citations is a sign of progress. He pointed to the city’s “litter index,” which is based on surveys completed by Streets employees and shows the intensity of litter in different sanitation districts on a gradient scale that goes from red (“extremely littered”) to green (“minimal litter”). Most of the city looks like a late autumn tree in a litter index from October 2011. By late last year, the department recorded that most of the city had receded to moderate or minimal litter.

The department does do some direct cleaning — it spent almost $1.5 million a year paying 72 young people to clean up litter and debris from alleyways as part of a job creation program called Philly Future Track as well as targeted street sweeping.

And Streets spokeswoman said busy thoroughfares get street cleanings during nighttime hours and after events.

“We only clean commercial corridors where there are businesses, like Girard Avenue or Germantown [Avenue],” spokeswoman June Cantor said. “It happens every night. Every night, we’re out their cleaning the business corridors.”

Cantor said reintroducing twice monthly citywide street cleaning would require $18 million in start-up costs, with a $3.5 million annual budget.

The Fix:

After a recent Philadelphia Magazine article on the litter epidemic, Streets Commissioner David Perri published a letter disputing the “tired and inaccurate stereotype of the careless sanitation worker being the cause of litter.” Perri pointed instead to solutions from other cities — a ban on plastic bags and polystyrene containers, bottle deposit laws, and public wastebin removal programs.

Some of these programs are in effect (or being discussed) in New York City, a fact specifically mentioned by Perri. The New York City Department of Sanitation, through a spokeswoman, said the city was going to ban polystyrene (think foam take-out containers) items next month.

But New York, like other cities including Philadelphia, has struggled to regulate or tax plastic bags because of industry pressure. The same is true for implementing a bottle deposit program.

That would mean a small tax soda, water or beer in order to offer a rebate for anyone who brings discarded containers to collection points.

The container tax inspired a popular Seinfeld episode and has, by most accounts, succeeded in combating litter in nearby New York state — a spokesman in Albany pointed to a study that showed a 70 percent decrease in bottles and cans as a portion of roadside litter.

The American Beverage Association (ABA) vociferously opposes any effort to create or expand bottle deposit programs.

“The solution to litter is comprehensive curbside recycling and recycling containers in public spaces,” said the ABA’s vice president of policy, William M. Dermody. “The facts show that beverage containers are such a small part of the problem, that the existence of [bottle collection] programs does little to decrease litter.”

Not so fast, says Susan Collins of the Container Recycling Institute. Hawaii, she said, reduced beverage containers collected by sanitation crews by nearly 50 percent.

“Litter is an issue that’s been researched now for three decades and containers deposit laws are a proven tool to reduce litter,” she said.

Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corp. employees said all types of containers make up nearly a third of all litter they collect and a study by Temple University on behalf of the city Water Department also has found that recyclable plastics — including both bottles and bags — “were the most commonly observed type of trash” that washed into city sewer inlets, at 38 percent.

Another assertion by Dermody, however, is correct — that more bins do generally reduce litter. The national anti-litter group Keep America Beautiful found that people were almost 50 percent less likely to litter in situations where receptacles were conveniently placed and regularly emptied. The effect even increased when trash cans were brightly colored or creatively designed.

Sam Sherman, the PARC executive director, said ultimately, restoring regular street sweeping was key.

“There’s no reason that we can’t do it. They used to do it, people were just too damn lazy to move their cars,” he said. “We have our mechanized machine, we go around cleaning with this big vacuum. It’s effective, but you can only be so effective with the cars sitting there.”