Living a mere block off South Street, I’m faced with trash every day, the downside to my otherwise positive view of city dwelling. While the Center City lifestyle suits me well — walking or biking to most places, enjoying fabulous restaurants and great culture — it’s difficult to accept the filth, which, at times, overshadows those positives. In the three years since my husband and I moved to town, the trash problem has gotten worse.
The problem is threefold. For starters, there aren’t enough garbage cans to accommodate the trash from dog walkers, fast food eaters, and tourists who flock to the South Street Headhouse District. Second, the cans that do exist aren’t emptied often enough, overflowing and causing an unsafe environment for residents, and an embarrassing black eye for the city.
The final culprits are the people who use the cans, even when it’s obvious that not another morsel will fit inside. A Disney study determined that people will walk about 25 steps to throw something away. That’s not even the length of a city block. People leave coffee cups on top of garbage cans instead of putting them inside and dog owners haphazardly drop colorful plastic baggies filled with dog waste next to the can, often because finding a usable garbage can requires well more than 25 steps.
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Imagine the extra exercise you’ll get by walking the additional steps to the next usable receptacle. And, please, dear neighbors, stop putting your own trash bags and leaf clippings next to the public cans. You have your own cans — use them!
The city’s Big Belly trash system – more than 800 cans citywide, according to the Philadelphia Streets Department — are emptied three times a week. They are designed with a mechanism that alerts the Streets Department when they are full, but that doesn’t always work. If the can’s door is open, the unit can’t compact trash, and the electronic sensor can’t give its warning.
One big problem, according to Mike Harris, executive director of the South Street Headhouse District, is that pizza boxes don’t fit into the Big Bellies. When people try to cram them in, the boxes get stuck, the trash slot won’t open, and the can becomes useless.
The Big Belly cans are going through an overhaul. Older cans are being refurbished, with the hope that they will be sturdier and more reliable. In the meantime, some of the cans have been taken away, awaiting their replacements. For me, that’s been a problem. The garbage can I had come to depend on when I walk my dog through the Shambles every morning disappeared a few months ago. Maybe it is still awaiting its replacement?
Or, maybe, it was one of the cans removed due to abuse. When neighbors illegally dump their trash in or next to the can on a regular basis, that’s grounds for the Streets Department to remove the can altogether.
One positive to living near South Street is that the trash that accumulates on the streets is swept away every single day between Front Street and 11th, from Lombard to Bainbridge. In the summer, it’s more than once a day, according to Harris. I know that’s true, because I see them working during my morning dog walk. The workers are pleasant and seem to take pride in keeping the neighborhood clean.
I recognize that the trash problem plagues the entire city. In 2017, there were 50,204 trash-related complaints to 311, the city’s main hotline for quality-of-life issues. And I know it’s even worse in other Philly neighborhoods, where pictures of abandoned toilets, electronics, and clothing have been well-documented. In Point Breeze, Kingsessing, and North Philadelphia, residents wait an average of 16 to 28 days for a response to complaints to 311.
So, what’s the solution? For Harris, it’s finishing the upgrading of the Big Bellies, finding alternative receptacles that would accommodate pizza boxes and other large items that won’t fit into the existing cans, and having the city be diligent with Big Belly maintenance.
I would add that all the cans need to be emptied more often. Three times a week isn’t nearly enough. Although I recognize that it costs money to hire more crews to do the extra work, it’s a worthwhile price to pay for the residents and tourists. And, it takes all of us to keep our neighborhoods clean, even if that requires walking a few extra steps.
Terri Akman is a writer in Philadelphia. email@example.com