The never-ending litter problem: Would more trash cans help?

June 6, 2014

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).

A resident placed this trash can at 45th and Pine years ago and it's still doing the job.

A resident placed this trash can at 45th and Osage years ago and it’s still doing the job. (Photo by Mike Lyons / West Philly Local)

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 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’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.”

Annamarya Scaccia

22 Comments For This Post

  1. Oklahoma Says:

    I hate litter bugs. On a daily basis I witness people in my neighborhood litter. I recently saw someone driving, roll down their window, and drop a McDonalds bag. That’s lazy, ignorant, and disrespectful.

  2. brendangrad Says:

    Correction to the caption in the pic above. That is the corner of 45th and Osage, not Pine.

  3. lo Says:

    I cant even count the amount of times Ive seen people just throw their trash on the ground when there was a trash can half a block away from them. Theres no thought or even second-guessing the action either which is the sad part. Its the culture of people not giving a shit about their surroundings and it sucks.

  4. Strongforu Says:

    We need a shift in the local culture. Many Philadelphians of all socio-economic backgrounds think it’s perfectly fine to throw their trash on the ground. I’ve seen it Chestnut Hill, West Philly and Center City.

  5. red dog Says:

    one of the many sources of trash—-the trash trucks! Admittedly its not a great job, but have you ever noticed at the end of a trash day the neighborhood is at its worst in terms of litter; it seems like every time the truck stops to make a pick up another small pile of trash begins its new life as litter.
    If the City’s response to crime was the same as its basic response to litter it would “you don’t like crime, well take the problem into your own hands”. Town watch might help alittle bit, but its not a replacement for jobs, cops and the courts.
    Yes many people are LAZY and think out of sight is out of mind, but (sooner or) later most of the trash ends up with the City, why not make it sooner!

  6. 49th St. Says:

    Excellent point, red dog. Every neighborhood looks its worst on trash day. Changing the cultures and attitudes of individuals is very hard, changing institutions is a bit easier. The Streets Department could make a decision to prioritize more professional trash collection. It would be a start.

  7. 46er Says:

    It helps if the residents know how to pack their trash. Making the trash sealed inside bags would make it harder for the workers to spill it.

  8. sara Says:

    While I don’t think it would entirely resolve the problem and personal responsibility would also need to be taken, it really would be great to have more public trash cans throughout the more residential areas. There was a ‘clean up after your dog’ basket on 45th between Pine and Locust, and yes, sometimes it also had miscellaneous trash in it, but when it was removed for no apparent reason, people still placed their dog bags in the spot it used to be. Not the best thing, but at least it was all in one place, showing that people do in fact pay attention and use provided receptacles when they are there (thankfully the basket is now back). I often find myself searching for a trash can while Im out and about in the neighborhood – others may not be so diligent and throw their trash on the ground if they can’t readily find a can. So maybe it isn’t a fix-all, but I think more receptacles would in fact help.

  9. w. philly res Says:

    I think more trash receptacles and more public awareness about proper procedures for putting out trash and recycling would help. On windy trash days especially, the streets are extremely full of trash because lots of people don’t bag up their trash adequately or animals have already opened the bags, and the recycling things are loose. There should be more trash cans on the streets and more education about proper disposal for residents.

  10. gesisusa Says:

    reduce trash, sustainability and responsibility are the keywords…

  11. hello neighbor Says:

    I live near 49th and Baltimore and clean up the litter on my block, on both sides of the street regularly. It’s really discouraging because within an hour, there’s more litter. I’ve put grocery bags on my garden fence to encourage people to put trash in it. They take the bag. Some of my neighbors watch me pick up trash their family has thrown down, and do nothing. My neighbors behind us smoke out their window and throw the butts, often landing on my deck. One of them landed and smoldered on my patio umbrella. The corner store generates much of the litter: tiny black plastic shopping bags, potato chip bags, cigarette detritus, soda/juice cans and jugs, etc.

    I want to cheerfully keep picking up but honestly, I resent it. When we first moved here I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could lead by example and inspire my neighbors to do their part. Instead, I suspect they wait for me to do it. How do you engage adults in a conversation along the lines of: can you please pick up that soiled disposable diaper that’s been under your tree for 3 days? Can you not throw your lit butt onto my wooden deck? When you have a large gathering can you go around and pick up the plastic cups, plates, utensils, etc? I am REALLY not interested in the tsunami of abuse I suspect that would draw.

  12. chill out Says:

    This is an issue that bugs me to no end, its not the cities fault! Parents need to teach their children better, I see parents and their children throwing trash on the ground all the time, this also happens in the subways and buses. These kids see their parents doing it so they think its ok for them to do it, thats why its going to take a lot of effort to stop this crisis. Whenever I see someone throw trash, I go and say “let me get that for you”, hopefully my tactic works to get them to think about it next time.

  13. Andy L. Says:

    Thank you to everyone who picks up more than their fair share! I try to do that too, and it’s satisfying to leave things better than you found them. If you always aim for “better,” you can always achieve it, and even just going for the easiest, lowest hanging fruit is worthwhile and energizing. Probably the easiest piece of litter you can grab that saves a big headache later: a glass bottle. Grab it before it breaks, and you can bask in the warm glow of your good deed rather than get too worked up about whatever less litter-conscious person/squirrel/gust-of-wind left it there in the first place.

    My biggest request of the city on the litter front: please keep the park trashcans stocked with trash bags. Too often when I go to Kingsessing Rec Center in particular, most of the trashcans have zero trash bag. No big surprise that the ground has so much litter.

  14. Inquizative Says:

    More trash cans could help but the main problem is the Philly don’t care attitude. From my personal observation it’s coming from younger generation. These kids just don’t care. I watch them in action throw stuff on the ground right next to a trash can. Many times I’ve picked up their trash right in front of them and throw it away for them to observe. The profoundly ignorant ones snicker and the ones with a little potential have a perplexed look on their faces when I plop their snack bags and soda bottles into the trash.

  15. Bill Greene Says:

    i dunno, maybe the law has changed, but back in the early ’00s my housemates & i chained a trash can to the stop sign at the corner of 48th & hazel, in front of our house. we took very good care of it, emptied it every week on trash night, etc. then one day we got a ticket. (i forget – $30 or something.) one of us even went to court to challenge it, and the judge just said, ‘nope. the law’s the law.’ so we got rid of the trash can. i don’t even remember what law we broke.

  16. Sara M Says:

    I worked in the South Bronx in the 80’s and we were ticketed by the sanitation department if there was any litter in front of our property including 18 inches into the street). They ticketed once a week at a set time (ie 2-4pm). All business owners would go outside and sweep their properties to avoid the tickets. It changed the litter problem and gave you a chance to converse about litter with the litterbugs who walked on the sidewalks. The tickets went to the property owners who pressured their tenants to keep the properties clean. It worked!!!

  17. Rowan Machalow Says:

    We just moved here from Brooklyn, which had many times the population density on each block, and a trash can on each corner. There was still litter, but a lot less considering how many more people lived and worked on each block!

    I think part of the city problem is that the public trash cans are not emptied sufficiently. I so frequently go to throw something away in a public trash can, only to find that the can is so full that it’s overflowing. Many conscientious people who want to throw their trash away instead stack it as neatly as possible beside the bin… but if the trash were taken away more regularly they wouldn’t need to.

  18. Valerie Says:

    We definitely need more trash cans. I’ve never seen so few trash cans in any city I’ve ever lived. Also what’s the deal with Phil people dumping their trash at Clark Park and other public cans??? Who does that, and why?

  19. jeff Says:

    [deleted by admin]

  20. SMH Says:

    Philadelphians in general have horrible ideas about litter, generally. Like if you throw it in the sewer, thats good enough. Or “I pay my taxes so they can pick it up.”

    Please, please do not blame the ignorance that all kinds of Philadelphians suffer from on one ethnic group, Melissa.

  21. SMH Says:

    Why can’t we have solar powered self-compacting big bellies this side of the river again?

  22. Oscar O'Malley Says:

    I like that you mentioned that we are all accountable for the litter we see in public environments. My wife and I like to volunteer as much as we can, and I think we’re going to help pick up litter at the local parks this weekend. Having some tools to help make it a little bit easier would be great.

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