Editor’s Note: Dozens of articles have been written about trash in Philadelphia. So what are some grassroots, block-by-block solutions to the problem? More trash cans? Culture change? It’s a tricky one.
It’s no secret that Philadelphia is an unkempt city. After all, the riverside metropolis has landed on the top end of a few “dirtiest cities in America” listicles—chief among them, Travel+Leisure’s 2012 roundup (in at number six) and Forbes’ extensive 20 Dirtiest Cities list (in at number three).
You don’t need lists to tell you that, though. Look down your block, in a vacant lot, or any SEPTA station, and you’re bound to see— and smell — trash. Sure, it’s gotten better over the years, but not by much. And, as Ryan Briggs wrote for City Paper in May, the politics of cleaning up Philadelphia are just as messy as its streets.
In the interest of sifting through those politics, we here at West Philly Local were curious about how public trash receptacles played into West Philly’s litter problem. Why were there multiple public trashcans on certain corners while other streets didn’t have a trashcan for a few blocks?
As West Philly Local reader, Victoria, tweeted us under the handle @vvictorrriaa, “What trashcans on our streets? Lived her for 18+ yrs + there aren’t any on my block or surrounding blocks.”
So we turned to the City for some answers. Turns out, the City normally places public wire baskets on business corridors with heavy foot traffic “where there is a need and the expectation that they will be an effective tool to control litter,” June Cantor, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Streets Department, told West Philly Local.
“The most heavily littered areas are commercial corridors that lack strong business associations and some residential areas. Public trash receptacles serve a role in the control of litter[,] but they are not a panacea,” Cantor told West Philly Local. “Property owners, residents and businesses need to have civic pride, take personal responsibility for their environment and engage the community in order to effectively control litter.”
Community Development Corporations, local community groups, businesses, local schools, and block captains also have a hand in providing public trashcans, West Philly Local was told by city officials. For example, in the Powelton Village area, University City District and Drexel University mostly provide and maintain public bins within their respective borders, according to Powelton Village Civic Association President Michael Jones. (University City District did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
But that’s not foolproof. As Victoria told us in a series of tweets, “I think one of the main issues is ppl think Greenline is close enough + that can does the job for this area … as evidenced by trash on Locust + at the corners of Melville (Walnut, Locust, Spruce ends), it’s not enough.”
As for residential areas, the City doesn’t provide public trash bins, and instead, hold property owners responsible for maintaining “a litter-free environment” since sidewalks are considered private property, she wrote in an email. That’s why you’d find multiple trash bins on the corners of Baltimore Avenue and 45th Street versus only one on the corner of 49th Street and Chester Avenue (as shown in the pictures above).
At one point, though, residential neighborhoods did have public trashcans. But, according to Philadelphia Streets Department Commissioner Donald Carlton, the City removed its wire baskets from those areas to curb illegal dumping of household trash in and around public cans. If residents want a public trashcan on their street, a block captain would have to sign up for the “adopt a basket,” in which a different arm of the Streets Department would provide a trashcan, but the captain would have to maintain it.
This is not an easy solution, though. As Holly Otterbein wrote for Philly.com in 2010, not every block actually has a captain—in fact, at the time, about a third of the city’s 18,000 blocks had captain, she wrote. And in order to become a block captain, a resident would need to put together a petition “signed by at least 50 percent off the neighbors” on their block. The reason for these rules? According to Otterbein, a random resident can’t just sign up for a trash can because “the city believes that to monitor a trash can or organize a cleanup, you need ‘buy-in’ from the neighbors.”
But it seems the City is really banking on people “to change” in order to curb Philadelphia’s litter problem, though. In his email to West Philly Local, Carlton parroted Cantor’s comment, writing that, “unfortunately” in Philadelphia, litter is not reduced by availability of public trashcans, attaching photos of dumping and litter around wire baskets as evidence of his claim. Instead, wrote the Streets Department Commissioner, while the City has “come a long way in the past five years” in cleaning up Philadelphia—and will continue to do so through education, enforcement, and cleaning programs—it’s “ultimately up to the people to want to make a change.”
“If residents took a few minutes twice a week, you will see a major change,” Carlton told West Philly Local. “I was in Harrisburg on business last week. I took photos. Not a litter basket for miles, but no litter. It[’]s a needed change in culture[,] not baskets.”
The city has tried to jumpstart that culture change through a campaign asking residents to “Unlitter Us,” complete with video spots featuring spoken word artists (see below).
On April 23, Mayor Michael Nutter gave a nearly identical response via Twitter when Philadelphia Business Journal’s Jared Shelly asked how he plans to tackle Philadelphia’s litter problem as part of ABC Action News’ #6abcAskTheMayor program. But Mayor Nutter’s lean-in on the “People shouldn’t litter/people need to change” solution didn’t really sit well with Philadelphians, who fired back at the Mayor.
As one person tweeted, presumably a sarcastic interpretation of Mayor Nutter’s answer, “Get off your lazy butts and sweep your front like your parents made you do on Saturdays.”
And, as MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki asked, “Your plan to address trash and litter is telling people not litter?”
It’s a necessary question. Expecting cultural change as a means to an end is a fool’s dream, and doesn’t really address the litter problem in its entirety. Whether the City providing more trashcans is a smart solution is also up for debate, but it couldn’t hurt, right?
In one reader’s opinion, who spoke to us under the condition of anonymity, “What the city can do is pay more attention to neighborhoods on the outskirts of the gentrified areas. Hippie West Philly (Penn to 48th) receives so many amenities while inner city West Philly (50th and beyond) is left to rot. It’s unfair.”
In the end, though, the issue comes down to responsibility of every group involved — the city, businesses, community groups, residents and the like, Ben Ditzler of RecycleNOW Philadelphia said.
“There’s a lack of public trash and recycling cans because they require ownership – which in turn requires time and money,” Ditzler told West Philly Local “Given the choice, most entities will choose less responsibility.”