Rendell, Nutter and Street tried to clean up Philly - now it's Mayor Kenney's turn | Editorial

A BigBelly trash compactor at 12th and Locust with a broken door and trash piled beside it.

Imagining this city free of waste is even harder than imagining it free of Democrats.

But zero waste is the goal in a new initiative announced last week by Mayor Kenney; the program is designed to reduce waste and litter in the city.

Mayors in past decades have made various attempts at cleaning up this city. Ed Rendell grappled with graffiti in his administration; John Street made a big statement in the first days of his administration by towing hundreds of abandoned cars away, then launching an anti-blight effort. Michael Nutter installed solar-powered BigBelly waste receptacles and commissioned an ad campaign to discourage people from littering.

And yet, the sea of waste and debris continues to rise; a new report points to the fact that the city disposes of 1.5 million tons of waste each year — that’s one ton per resident. We have the dubious distinction of being named by Forbes as one of America’s dirtiest cities.

Now it’s Kenney’s turn. His approach, though, is much larger than the daily insults of litter, but sets out to rethink the entire waste stream — diverting all waste from landfills and incinerators. That’s a big mind shift that many cities are adopting — that involves reconsidering the life cycle of materials we use in daily life and instead of trashing them, reusing, recycling, donating, and composting. It also extends to rethinking production and packaging of materials: think of the choking amount of  Styrofoam containers and plastic bags that we rely on without thinking of the consequences of their disposal.

Litter is a big part of zero waste. In Philadelphia, litter bedevils many city neighborhoods — and Center City is no exception. Few citizens have escaped the sight of someone tossing trash nonchalantly onto the sidewalk or road, as if the streets themselves were a giant trash can. Short dumping — the illegal disposal of tires, construction materials, and other waste — is also a blight in many communities, and costs taxpayers millions to clean up.

The Streets Department under Nutter got a good start by creating a litter map of the city’s neighborhoods; this is now being expanded to include the creation of a litter index that will allow citizens to track the amount of litter in their neighborhood and on their block. That index is not theoretical; it involves actually counting and collecting data on litter.

The zero waste initiative will rely heavily on data collection and analysis. The Kenney administration is also relying heavily on behavioral science to create ways to change people’s behavior about waste and litter. (And we can’t help thinking they’ve got their work cut out for them there, given the habits of many of our fellow citizens.)

It’s a nice illusion to think that throwing something away — whether it’s the trash in our basement or the remains of last night’s meal — makes it disappear. The heaping landfills, and the tens of millions of dollars we spend to deal with our detritus, should give us all pause and make us rethink the junk we leave behind.

Residents can find trash and recycling information about where they live, including block captains and other information, at cleanphl.org.​