Where’s my trash truck? Online map will help Philly residents track waste collection

Some city residents say they are fed up with delayed trash collection. The city says sanitation workers are worked harder than ever, due to more people staying home and making more trash. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Some city residents say they are fed up with delayed trash collection. The city says sanitation workers are worked harder than ever, due to more people staying home and making more trash. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Starting next week, Philadelphians will be able to track down the status of trash and recycling collection through an online mapping tool.

PickupPHL — designed by the city to improve sanitation services — uses GPS devices installed in trucks to show residents where trash and recycling collection are happening in Philadelphia in almost real-time. The map, which will be refreshed every 30 minutes, will show the trash collection routes, allow users to find out which blocks have been visited by sanitation trucks, and inform if there are significant delays.

“This new tool further demonstrates our administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability in city services,” Mayor Jim Kenney said.

Trash-related complaints increased dramatically this summer, reaching up to 6,000 calls in July, as piles of rotting waste sat on streets and alleys for days, attracting rodents and insects. The city’s Streets Department responded to collection delays and residents’ frustration by blaming it on the pandemic — a 30% increase in residential trash collection, staff absenteeism, and severe weather.

“Collections have been on schedule for the past few weeks, and we plan to keep it that way,” Kenney said.

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Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams said it was hard for the department to communicate with the public about collection delays because it wasn’t happening regularly or in all neighborhoods at the same time.

“But with this tool, they are now allowed to see in real-time where [trucks] are so that they can make appropriate decisions,” Williams said. “It’ll provide real-time access and it will hopefully reduce the number of complaints and calls for missed collection around the city.”

(Facebook/Streets Department)

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Nic Esposito, the city’s former Zero Waste Cabinet Director, doesn’t make much of the new tool.

He said trucks have had GPS for a long time, but that the Streets Department has not used that data to improve routes, collection systems or collection times. He doesn’t see many ways in which residents can use it either.

“Honestly, it just seems like a lot of bells and whistles on an already pretty generic piece of technology that they have and somehow it’s translated into more transparency,” Esposito said.

Esposito said sanitation workers are still being assigned their routes based on paper spreadsheets and do not use GPS to improve their routes, as one would use Google Maps or Waze to get the fastest route from one point to another.

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A sanitation worker recently told GreenPhilly that there are GPS devices to track the trucks, but none inside the trucks.

“I just don’t see how making already existing data public is this great step forward into better data-driven decisions,” Esposito said. “The better data-driven system would be actually utilizing the data within the trucks to let the drivers know what’s the best route, how routes shifted that day, if you have to make adjustments based off of weather issues or staffing issues … and that’s not what this is.”

Williams said collection times are gradually returning back to normal for both trash and recycling. But recycling and trash are still often being collected in the same truck, as PlanPhilly reported in July, due to the increased tonnage and attendance challenges.

“There are times when we will collect it all together to keep both on schedule to mitigate the public health concerns,” said Keisha McCarty-Skelton, a spokesperson for the Streets Department. “However, we are making significant progress with staffing to allow us to return to separate trash and recycling collections on a more normalized schedule.”

Starting on Oct. 1, residents will be able to find out how their collection was done by typing their address into a map hosted at StreetSmartPHL, a city portal for residents to access information related to permits, paving, and snow plowing. Color-coded information will show the date and time when trash and recycling visited their street and the kind of truck used for collection.

“We think this tool will be very helpful to the public because it will allow them to see our collection process in real-time,” Williams said.

The tool won’t show if trash and recycling was actually collected, though — only if the truck “visited” the block. Getting the sensors that would provide that information is the next step, Williams said. If collection was missed, residents will be able to report it to 311 through the platform.

PickupPHL was designed by the city’s Office of Information and Technology and did not require external contractors.

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