Sanitation Solutions: When the city let them down, Philly rose up — with orange trash cans

I Love Thy Hood's Matthew George stepped up to help attack Philadelphia’s dirty streets problem. He is learning the limits of what volunteers can do.

Matthew George changes the bag at his I Love Thy Hood can outside the Dollar General on Chelten Avenue.

Matthew George changes the bag at his I Love Thy Hood can outside the Dollar General on Chelten Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Every day, Germantown resident Matthew George empties three street trash cans multiple times as they rapidly fill and refill with garbage. It’s no small commitment. But he wishes he could do much, much more.

“If I could, I would empty 100 trash cans across the city. And maybe one day, it might be something like that,” he said.

George’s effort to clean up the streets and sidewalks of his neighborhood — and the rest of Philadelphia — has drawn enthusiastic praise from other residents and thousands of dollars in donations.

Two years ago, George, 29, and his wife Bria started I Love Thy Hood, a program that distributes bright orange bins to encourage trash collection and discourage littering. He says he and his supporters have so far placed more than 106 cans on blocks around the city and collected over 100,000 pounds of trash.

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They’ve also boosted pride of place in their neighborhood and other working-class areas that have not received the same level of public and corporate investment as wealthier areas. All people feel good about the beauty and cleanliness of their surroundings, he said.

“These dedicated, like-minded residents and business owners took up that burden of emptying these cans and changing their environment. It’s been a beautiful journey,” George said.

“The model is to really be responsible for your neighborhood. That’s where the name comes from, I Love Thy Hood, essentially giving pride to the people that live there and showing that we love our communities. It’s also a beacon to people coming into this community, saying, please respect this environment as if it was your own. There are people that do care about this area and want to preserve it and protect it,” he said.

George says he’s also been talking with people in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. who admire his model of providing trash receptacles to community volunteers, and he hopes to eventually bring his orange cans to those cities.

At the same time, he acknowledges there are limits to how much he or any small group can accomplish with regards to litter.

I Love Thy Hood is technically in the red, having spent more than it has brought in, so his “Orange Can Club” in Philadelphia can only grow as more donations trickle in. He’s also very aware of the sheer volume of the problem in a city that collects more than 2 million tons of solid waste every year.

He recalled participating in a volunteer cleanup in Germantown in January, over the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. Local business owners said they hadn’t seen the streets so clean in 30 years, but before long the sidewalks were covered in trash again.

“You can do all of these programs and clean up and stuff, but these same places are going to be the same way in a couple of weeks. So it’s about literally attacking that continuously and also changing the viewpoint of that person that walks by that area and probably litters,” he said.

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George says he looks forward to a time when the city government succeeds in really keeping the streets clean. Currently, he says, Philadelphia’s sanitation department serves as a “tool” for I Love Thy Hood, in that its workers empty many of the orange cans and haul away the collected bags of trash. But he says it’s a simple fact that that’s all they’re going to do.

“They’re not going to be sweeping on the side of the street for you and everything. That comes from other programs. If there’s a lack of that, then the people that live there, the businesses that are in those communities, they have to take action,” he said.

Matthew George collects trash on Chelten Avenue
Matthew George collects trash on Chelten Avenue as part of his project to involve neighbors and business owners in reducing litter. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A citywide struggle

George attributed the acuteness of Germantown’s litter problem in part to the fast-food chains that line Chelten Avenue and other main thoroughfares. They generate a steady stream of trash and do too little to clean it up, he said.

The city has installed municipal trash receptacles on some streets, but they’re not emptied often enough and regularly overflow, he said. The Germantown Special Services District, a municipal authority that swept sidewalks in commercial corridors, had financial and management problems and collapsed a few months before he started I Love Thy Hood.

People litter more in the presence of existing litter, and the district’s continual mess has contributed to a culture of apathy about properly disposing of trash, George said.

“The only example that we have are the people around us,” he said. “If you see a grown person throw something on the ground, what do you think a little kid’s going to do? He’s going to do the same thing.”

Philadelphia as a whole has a longstanding problem with litter and illegal dumping that has earned it the nickname “Filthadelphia.” It’s the only large U.S. city without citywide street cleaning, although sweepers do run through commercial corridors and, starting recently, a few neighborhoods. Earlier in the pandemic, residential trash overwhelmed the sanitation department, leading to repeated pickup delays in many neighborhoods.

The city has experimented with litter-reduction pilots, such as placing colorful trash cans on blocks in two neighborhoods. A pilot program called PhilaCan provides residential bins on certain blocks.

Private groups also play an important role, particularly community development corporations (CDCs) and business improvement districts (BIDs). The best-known BID is the Center City District, which is funded by special assessments on area businesses and cleans sidewalks in downtown Philadelphia multiple times a day.

George said he recently started a new job as business development manager for the Germantown United CDC, which has taken over commercial corridor cleaning in his area. In a few neighborhoods, nonprofits have hired young people, people with disabilities, or people who have experienced homelessness to do trash collection.

The limits of volunteering

I Love Thy Hood is one of a few volunteer groups that try to fill the many remaining gaps in neighborhood cleaning. Some have operated for years, like The Ray of Hope, an anti-blight nonprofit that for nearly 20 years has been organizing volunteer cleanups of streets, lots, parks, and schools.

Founder Ray Gant said he keeps at it because the city has never provided the consistent attention that neighborhoods like Kensington and Frankford need.

“People say you’re cleaning up today and it’s going to be dirty in a couple hours. So what? It needs to be done. This is our society,” he said. “If it wasn’t for organizations like The Ray of Hope project that have been out here, that have been a small voice in the community, a lot of things wouldn’t happen in these neighborhoods that have been neglected.”

The city’s Streets Department agrees, saying that community efforts like I Love Thy Hood play a vital role in reducing litter and illegal dumping.

“The impact of individual groups such as this and the work they perform is not negligible. If more people took the initiative to clean their communities and develop viable solutions to the challenges, many of the litter conditions we see across the city would cease to exist,” a spokesperson said in an email.

A syringe on the sidewalk in Kensington.
A syringe on the sidewalk in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But others, like West Philadelphia community activist Dave Brindley, say they are discouraged that the city expects individual residents to solve such an extensive societal problem.

In 2016, Brindley founded Not in Philly, a website where residents could commit to once-a-week block cleanups. Like I Love Thy Hood, it quickly earned praise and press attention. Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability touted the program and Brindley says over 1,600 people signed up to do cleanups.

But he says he grew disillusioned after the city’s much-anticipated restoration of mechanical street cleaning turned out to be a small pilot program that used air-polluting leaf blowers to dislodge trash from gutters, along with street-sweeper trucks. Sanitation workers working in Kensington complained about the toxic dust and debris blown in the air and inadequate safety equipment for workers in a part of the city where the region’s opioid epidemic rages without enough resources to fight it generally.

“We don’t know what’s on the needles. You know, we got feces we’re blowing,” Shaketa Armstead, then working for the city’s Streets Department said in 2019.

When the Not in Philly website crashed that same year, Brindley decided not to fix it.

“I realized the city was not going to make the difficult needed decisions. It showed that they would rather disregard air quality and have a limited service area instead of requiring cars to move,” Brindley said in an email.

While some volunteers like George and Gant persist, Brindley said the city must take the lead if residents’ beautification and cleaning efforts are to have a real chance of succeeding.

“I could no longer speak at neighborhood association meetings and implore citizens to ‘do our part’ while the city government did not,” Brindley said. “A beautiful, walkable city like Philadelphia needs trash cans and sweeping on every block as a core function of government. Instead, they seem to rely solely on volunteer labor. Our small initiative demonstrated that our citizens are awesome, but they are no substitute for government.”

This article is part of Sanitation Solutions, a series supported by the Solutions Journalism Network. Join I Love Thy Hood’s Mathew George and others for a virtual discussion on Wednesday about how to solve Philadelphia’s dirty streets problem.

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