Ride along with Philadelphia’s recycling cops

    SWEEPS officers try to educate residents about what can be recycled. Last year they wrote 63,000 tickets.

    The city of Philadelphia doesn’t just blindly trust citizens to follow the rules. 47 SWEEP officers in Philadelphia are charged with educating the public and writing hefty tickets for those who don’t follow the rules about trash and recycling.
    The job of a SWEEP officer requires the investigative skills of a detective, the people skills of a seasoned mediator, and a willingness to doing things that are kind of gross. On a recent breezy morning in West Philadelphia, two officers got to work.

    SWEEP Officer Curtis Overton writes a ticket
    SWEEP Officer Curtis Overton writes a ticket

    Officer Kerry Withers’ points out three black bags sitting in front of a house, with no recycling bin in sight. Withers suspects there are recycleables mixed with garbage inside the bags.

    He snaps on a pair of blue gloves and gets to work pulling the bags open and searching for evidence among someone else’s trash.

    “There’s also recycling in here along with a bunch of bugs and gnats that you really don’t want to mess with. This is a part that I don’t really enjoy [laughs] but it’s a part of the job that I have to do.”

    Garbage bags full of trash and recycleables
    Garbage bags full of trash and recycleables

    Withers finds cardboard, glass bottles and paper inside. He uses a special hand-held device to snap a picture, then prints out a fifty dollar ticket. Officers tend to only issue a ticket when they find five or more recycleables in the trash. This case is an extreme example – the bags are full of trash and lots of recycleables. But Withers says in some less clear cases, residents could say someone else passing by must have thrown a bit of trash in with their recycling.
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    “If we walk by and you have a bin and we see that there’s some trash in it, nine times out of ten, 99.9% of the officers are not going to write you a ticket and you have a bucket our and you’re attempting to recycle we not trying to hurt anybody. We just basically wanna get people to comply with what the city is trying to do.”

    Last year enforcement officers wrote 63,000 tickets and 146,000 warnings. Withers’ partner Curtis Overton says he know what some people think of them.

    “They say we the most hated people on the street. That’s what they say – the community people. And what’s that, the Parking Authority, they say we the next in line.”

    One of those unhappy Philadelphians is Lori Arnold. Standing in the kitchen of her house near the Art Museum the stay-at-home mom is making dinner…just a few steps away from the kitchen trash can, which is right next to bags full of bottles and cans.

    “We’re mildly obsessive about recycling. I was also aware of the trash police, so I’ve been very vigilant about it.”

    Which helps explains why Arnold was outraged to receive a fifty-dollar ticket for allegedly putting recycleables in her trash.

    “I’m just tired of the city’s lack of funds being carved out of the backs of the residents that are still staying here. This I’m not going to let it go. People just – on top of the taxes that we pay, the increasing property taxes, all this stuff, it’s just – no. It’s just turning into an Orwellian Philadelphia. I’m gonna fight it, I am going to scream it from the mountain tops. Till the death. I’m not going to pay the fifty dollar ticket! [laughs]”

    The city recently expanded its curbside recycling rewards program to include the entire city. And now most kinds of plastic can be put in your blue bucket.

    And with the potential for more violations, there will come more chances for confrontation – or education.

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