Individuals alone didn’t create Philly’s litter problems and individuals alone can’t solve it

Litter is a racial justice issue created by systemic disinvestment. Philadelphia needs to take a systemic approach to solving it.

A Mural Arts Philadelphia billboard urging people to use reusable bags. (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia)

A Mural Arts Philadelphia billboard urging people to use reusable bags. (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia)

It’s difficult to imagine now, but Philadelphia, now nicknamed “Filthadelphia,” was once well-known for the cleanliness of its streets.

But in 1917, we were one of the first U.S. cities to deploy modern street sweeping technology and we were consistently ranked as ​one of the cleanest cities in the country​. In fact, Benjamin Franklin organized this country’s very first street sweeping program during the colonial era, right here in Philadelphia in the 1750s. But by the end of the 20th century, federal budget cuts, white flight, and other economic trends had led to a massive reduction of city services.

By 1980, former mayor Frank Rizzo had slashed the budget for cleaning considerably and by the early 2000s, the Streets Department had lost a street sweeping unit and the money to support a citywide program.

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Today, city data reveals that the neighborhoods hit hardest by the city’s decision to get out of the street cleaning business are places populated primarily by Black Philadelphians, Latinos, and immigrants from around the world. The trash, litter, and illegal dumping that are now endemic in the city’s poorest and most underserved ZIP codes are glaring reminders of decades of disinvestment and racialized capital flight.

Yet today, most strategies for reducing trash focus on the litterbug, the consumer of single-use items, and the person who fails to sort their recycling properly. While personal behavior plays a role, we should be even more invested in understanding how institutions perpetuate the trash crisis; for example, like how the fracking industry is attempting to maintain its profitability by flooding the marketplace with cheap petrochemical products.

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For those who are interested in being more involved in addressing our city’s complex trash issues, here are some actions you can take:

Join a collective action or activist group. Join us, Trash Academy, a project of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Environmental Justice Department, a “collaboratory” of youth, activists, artists, and engaged residents working to complicate and deepen people’s understanding of litter, consumption, and waste and shift attitudes from passive acceptance to proactive responses to the waste stream. 

There’s also Break Free From Plastic, a global movement working to stop plastic pollution. You can support Grant Blvd, a Black-owned sustainable apparel brand that “makes climate activism and social justice fashionable.” Join Philly Thrive, which organizes for recovery from the connected crises of climate change, racism, and poverty. Or participate in the Sunrise Movement, a political action organization that advocates political action on climate change.

Book our Implosion Webinars. The ‘implosion’ is a unique and fascinating research method for exploring hidden connections and complexities, pioneered and developed by professor Donna Haraway. Trash Academy’s implosions visualize the way in which common objects “live” in the world around us and how the world “lives” in them. Trash Academy has developed two interactive webinars, led by Trash Academy Leaders, one that implodes single-use plastic bags and one that implodes Charmin toilet paper (in response to COVID19 panic buying). Book us online at our website.

Consume less single-use plastic. Bring reusable bags and refuse the plastic bags at the counter when checking out at stores. Shop at your local farmers market or join a local CSA to avoid pre-wrapped produce and baked goods.

Compost. If you have access to outdoor space, consider making your own small-scale compost system. There are a few local services that will pick up your household compost like Bennett Compost and Circle Compost.

Recycle your clothing and electronics. In an effort to reduce the amount of waste sent to the landfill and keep dangerous chemicals out of the ground and air, The SmartCityPHL’s Pitch & Pilot program allows Philadelphia residents to schedule doorstep pickup of unwanted clothing and electronics for recycling.

The failure of our systems, exposed through the pressures of COVID and increased residential consumption, has resulted in more trash on our streets and in our waterways, and increasingly, the mixing of residential trash and recycling. Now is the time for all of us to take action — and hold our elected officials, and the systems they control, to account as well.

Ron Whyte, Emma Wu, and Shari Hersh are organizers through Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Trash Academy program.

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