Trash talk: Bigger fines, free neighborhood cans in Philly

Residents are tired of construction companies — or their neighbors — dumping debris in vacant lots and public parks.

Ontario and C streets is rated a “3” on Philadelphia’s Litter Index. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ontario and C streets is rated a “3” on Philadelphia’s Litter Index. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Philadelphia residents are tired of construction companies — or their neighbors — dumping debris in vacant lots and public parks. And when Philadelphians get mad about something in their neighborhood, their City Council representatives hear about it.

That’s why Lower Northeast Councilman Bobby Henon introduced a bill in City Council on Thursday that would designate dozens of Litter Enforcement Corridors across Philadelphia.

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“Short dumping is running rampant, and it’s destroying the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” said Henon. “It really sends a message: look at that pile of trash; it must be okay to do that in this neighborhood.”

Under Henon’s bill, Litter Enforcement Corridors will be marked by signage that will inform those who violate the law that they could end up paying fines that are orders of magnitude larger than usual.

“They are going to think twice if they are getting double, triple the fines in certain areas,” said Henon. “We have to slowly create an atmosphere and tools that change behavior.”

Existing city law subject individuals who get caught illegally unloading trash to a fine of between $50 and $300 on first offense, as well a trash-clean up community service sentence. Those fines could double under the bill.

Commercial operators who get caught using a vehicle to dump can be subject to fines between $500 and $5,000. Those fines could triple under Henon’s legislation.

Henon said the money from the fines would be used to step up enforcement. He said that more addresses would be added to the list of Litter Enforcement Corridors as the bill gets amended. The roughly 50 corridors included in the newly introduced bill [PDF] reflect recommendations made by fellow City Council reps, according to Henon’s legislative director, Tom Holroyd.

The list includes problem areas in the 2nd, 5th, 6th and 9th districts including stretches of Ogonz Avenue, E.Tioga Street, Broad Street, Olney Avenue, Lindbergh Avenue, Grays Ferry Avenue, Woodland Avenue and Germantown Avenue. Holroyd also expects to add to the list based on recommendations that come from the Litter Index released by Kenney’s Zero Waste and Litter cabinet earlier this year.

He also said that some problem corridors such as sections of Broad Street, Frankford, Cottman, and Haverford avenues can’t be targeted by the ordinance without the recommendation of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials because they are state roads.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly enabled the designation of distinct Litter Enforcement Corridors in June, with Act 62.

But the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations’ policy director, Beth McConnell, is concerned that hiking fines may not be the best answer.

“Fines are only useful as a tool if the City dramatically boosts investment in staff capacity to catch people in the act of littering, ensure fines are collected and do both in a highly visible way that deters would-be litterers,” said McConnell. “Alternatively, we should invest in bringing back citywide street sweeping, continue boosting commercial corridor cleaning contracts, and focus strategies on transit stops that are major litter hot spots.”

McConnell said that over the last two years the city expanded corridor cleaning contracts, which now go to 21 organizations receiving a total of $864,000. The typical contract is for $30,000 a year, although they can go up to $100,000 if a CDC is cleaning multiple corridors.

Mayor Jim Kenney campaigned on bringing back street sweeping. Philadelphia is one of the only major cities that doesn’t have a regular street cleaning program.

Administration officials have cited insufficient funds as the reason that the campaign promise has gone unfulfilled. But skeptics say the issue has proved too politically sensitive because residents in dense row house neighborhoods don’t like moving their cars from precious parking spots near their homes.

Earlier this month, City Council unanimously passed a bill designed to encourage community groups to install and independently maintain trash and recycling cans on the streets. Community groups would be responsible for managing the cans and ensuring they get emptied without the involvement of the Streets Department and its sanitation workers. City Hall will handle requests for free receptacles on a case-by-case basis.

The expanded adopt-a-receptacle program was recommended in a city study of the efficacy of trash cans released in September.

The move furthers a trend towards public-private partnerships to fulfill core city services. As Catalina Jaramillo reported earlier this month, “already, many business districts and well-organized, affluent neighborhoods pay for increased cleanup services” above and beyond what the city can provide.

Asked about bringing street sweeping back, Henon paused and considered his response.

“I think street cleaning is always a good idea, I think how we pay for it is another issue,” said Henon. “I think street cleaning is going to be a conversation coming up and I think it will be in the forefront of the budget next year.”

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