Don’t Trash Philly

Can Philly clean up it’s act? The Next Great City Coalition argues that it’s time for Philly to get serious about curbing our trash issues, from illegal dumping to mindless littering. In this op-ed Katie Bartolotta, outreach coordinator for PennFuture (which organizes Next Great City), outlines five ways the next administration could make an immediate impact on our trash problems.


Filthadelphia. We’ve all heard the nickname before. It’s a moniker our city can shed if we enact smart policy solutions but, thus far, efforts to curb improper litter and trash disposal have hardly topped the list of pressing concerns dominating this mayoral season. While no one can say that schools and the economy should not be priority issues, a sound leader will be able to manage these agenda items alongside other issues that persist and add to the top tier problems the city faces.

It’s not just a cosmetic issue

Our ‘Filthadelphia’ status does more harm to the city than just the bad optics of our perennial top ten-ranking among America’s dirtiest cities. Sure, litter on the streets looks bad but research shows that the presence of litter encourages more litter and crime and lowers property values. The short dumping of tires – Philadelphia currently picks up more than 140,000 per year – is not only an eyesore, but tires also serve as a breeding ground for insects and rodents. The Philadelphia Water Department has to skim trash out of our rivers and filter out sediment from polluted rainwater at its treatment plants. Yes, there is a measurable cost to all the litter and trash on our streets.  

Practical solutions to a fixable problem

So, what’s the solution? The Next Great City Coalition took great interest in this topic and came up with five recommended actions steps that can be taken in the first terms of the next mayoral administration. The coalition looked at policy solutions with a particular focus on cost and how we will pay for them. From small to large:

  1. Publicizing and circulating L&I Circular Non-Delivery Decals and creating a simple electronic reporting mechanism for violations.
  2. The city should require tire stores to have on hand a manifest that shows proof of legal tire disposal. Given the sheer volume of tires that are illegally dumped, we can safely say the source is not simply individuals dumping tires in single-digit quantities, rather, businesses that have a large quantity of tires in need of disposal.
  3. We believe that landlords should be required to provide adequate trash storage. The city’s litter index shows that litter rates are higher in areas with a large number of renters. Anecdotally, we found that the lack of adequate trash storage in rental properties leaves residents with nowhere to store household garbage between trash collections. Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown has taken action on this problem with the recent introduction of a bill that would require landlords to provide adequate trash and recycling receptacles for dwellings with six or more units.
  4. A nominal bag fee is also critically important to reducing the number of plastic bags we see on our streets, in our trees, and in our waterways. A study of Washington D.C.’s bag tax shows that four years in, a small charge in that city has made a measurable difference
  5. Investment in a citywide street cleaning program would show the city’s commitment to neighborhood quality of life. The Philadelphia Streets Department estimates that a citywide mechanical street cleaning program would require an initial capital investment of $18.5 million for the street cleaning equipment and another $3.5 million in annual salary to clean the entire city twice a week. In the long term, however, street cleaning will create savings to the city and specifically to the Water Department by catching trash, debris and pollutants before they enter our stormwater system. And: It’s worth moving your car. After a decades-long hiatus, Baltimore street sweepers removed 400 tons of litter, broken glass, vehicle fluids, bacteria and other pollutants from neighborhood streets in their first month of operation.

Hope for the future

Now that we’re in the third iteration of the Next Great City Coalition, I often hear the refrain, “Are we ever going to actually be the Next Great City?” My answer is that being great means we recognize we’re never quite finished. There’s always something that we can do better and making a dent in our litter problem is achievable, desired, and timely.

Simply put: the mayoral candidates are on board with policy solutions that will help curb litter and trash problems and they understand the big-picture impacts of litter on communities – it’s a matter of making this issue a priority. The people want it, the candidates are in favor, let’s do this.

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