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Mayor Jim Kenney kills anti-litter initiative amid coronavirus budget crunch

Disposable gloves and masks have contributed to Philadelphia's litter problem. (Twitter/Philadelphia Water)

Disposable gloves and masks have contributed to Philadelphia's litter problem. (Twitter/Philadelphia Water)

Mayor Jim Kenney wants to slash and behead the office he created four years ago to reduce litter and illegal dumping in a city long known for its filth.

The Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet would be cut and the director position eliminated under the plan proposed by Kenney last week in response to the estimated $649 million budget hole caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Two staff members and the office’s work will be absorbed by the city’s Office of Sustainability.

“I can confirm that the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet will not continue to exist as a separate entity, ” Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokeswoman for the city, said in an email.

Kenney created the litter office, headed by director Nic Esposito, at the end of 2016 to coordinate cleaning efforts across city agencies, businesses, and other community groups. The goal was to reduce litter in public spaces and waste in landfills and incinerators by 90% by 2035.

Over the last three years, the cabinet created an interactive geolocated ‘litter index” mapping litter levels across the city and issued a city-wide plan to reduce waste, litter, and illegal dumping. It worked on bills to reduce illegal dumping and plastic waste and started the city’s first urban composting facility.

The post-pandemic budget introduced last week also cut a planned expansion of the city’s street sweeping program. City officials have not announced yet which programs coordinated by the litter cabinet will be slashed and which will continue to exist.

The budget also calls for tax increases, no city pools this summer, reduced hours at libraries and rec centers, and cuts to Mural Arts. The city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy would, like the litter cabinet, disappear under the plan. The budget must be approved by City  Council before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.

“The city is in a very challenging fiscal position and the mayor has been forced to make difficult choices that impact a lot of city offices and departments,” said Cofrancisco. She said the revised fiscal year 2021 budget focuses on core priorities related to public safety, health and education.

“Unfortunately many things that do not advance those specific goals are not able to be funded by the City at this time,” she said.

Anti-litter advocates praised the work of the cabinet headed by Esposito. But the initiative garnered criticism for a perceived lack of action, which was often attributed to a lack of resources to actualize waste-reducing plans.

The office’s only expense was salaries. Its dissolution will save the city an estimated $75,000 a year, which corresponds to Esposito’s salary.

“It’s frustrating to see the cabinet get dissolved when there is still so much work to do. Until we are ready to follow the lead of other major cities and invest in solving this problem and implementing bold changes, we’ll always be saddled with the reputation of Filthadelphia,” said Lauren Vidas,  who served as a member of the cabinet representing citizens until 2018.

Esposito has directed the cabinet since its creation. Before that role, he worked at the city’s Parks and Recreations Department, which he joined in 2012. Last year, he traveled with Kenney to a climate summit in Copenhagen, where he talked about a pilot waste reduction program the city got a grant to implement.

“What I love about Philadelphia, why I love working here, is that these issues are on the forefront, are on the table, and we’re facing them rather than just … sweeping them under the rug,” Esposito said last October, before leaving for that trip.

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