What's really keeping Philly from cleaning up its streets

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

UN-LITTER THIS: Retired environmental engineer Kelly O'Day at Tacony Creek, where litter from nearby streets washes into storm drains and, eventually, the creek itself.
Mark Stehle

On a recent Wednesday morning, the rugged, trash-strewn blocks of East Baltimore saw something they hadn’t seen in a long time: a street sweeper. After a decades-long hiatus, the city started cleaning up litter again on a vast scale — 90 percent of Baltimore’s streets will now be swept at least once a month.

“We decided that all neighborhoods of this city should have a chance to get their streets swept,” says Jeff Raymond of the Baltimore Department of Public Works.

That might seem like a miraculous event to Philadelphians, accustomed to our city’s tide of litter and the government’s half-hearted efforts to address the lingering problem of trash. But the cost of Baltimore’s ambitious undertaking? Just $3.25 million, according to Raymond. 

It might sound too good to be true, but what’s even more unbelievable is that officials in Philadelphia say it might be even cheaper to clean up our famously trash-choked city — in fact, a bigger obstacle than money could be city residents themselves.

But first let’s get to the cash.

“To mechanically clean the entire city on a bi-weekly basis we estimate that it would require an initial capital investment of $18 million for equipment and $3 million in annual salaries,” says June Cantor, spokesperson for Philadelphia’s Streets Department, which handles municipal-trash collection and street-cleaning duties.

That’s right — $3 million a year to clean the entire city twice a week. To put that number into perspective, this year the city will spend $2.5 million of its $4.5 billion budget to renovate a single dilapidated canoe house on Kelly Drive. Not that you should expect to see street sweepers on your block anytime soon.

“Currently there are no plans to purchase additional equipment to expand mechanical street cleaning in the city,” adds Cantor.

Although Philadelphians love to harp about litterbugs, the city’s reputation for filth also stems from the pittance the municipality invests in street cleaning. The Streets Department says it doesn’t separate out street sweeping costs in its budget, but city records show that only $4.5 million of its $45.1 million Sanitation Division budget is paid to salaries for “cleaning.” 

Since 2009, the city has only sent mechanized sweepers down selected commercial corridors, while a few other areas are cleaned by outside organizations, like the Center City District, that levy a special tax on businesses. Residential neighborhoods and areas that are too poor to kick in money for extra sanitation services are effectively on their own.

It wasn’t always like this — not that long ago, Philadelphia was regarded as one of the cleanest big cities in America.

Up to the 1970s, the Streets Department employed more than 5,000 people, underpinned by millions in federal grants designed to beef up municipal workforces. That money helped the Sanitation Division pay for over 500 “block people” — men with brooms who literally swept every block in the city by hand. 

But in the 1980s, the Reagan administration gutted federal employment grants, just as middle class flight was decimating city revenues. Within a 10-year span, street-cleaning crews were cut in half. Today, the Streets Department staff has been reduced through attrition to 1,789 people, most of whom man the city’s garbage trucks. Just 22 employees are specifically assigned to street cleaning, says Cantor.

However, the old anti-litter program was as comprehensive as it was inefficient. Modern mechanical street sweepers can clean much larger swaths of the city in much less time than an army of men with brooms — and there may be room for even more savings and extra manpower among the city’s fleet of garbage trucks.

Philadelphia rolled out its current model of compacting trucks in 1988, a move designed to save man-hours because higher-capacity trucks required fewer trips to city dumps for off-loading. But the city never realized the savings from that new technology because municipal unions fought the city’s attempt to reduce sanitation crews from three men to two.

“The initial reaction from the unions was, ‘Oh my God, these are job killers,’” says Peter Hoskins, who served as streets commissioner shortly after the truck upgrade. Hoskins says the city got the new trucks by cutting a deal to keep the larger trash crews.

“It was literally a compromise, instead of finding a way to get to a two man crew, which was politically difficult,” he said.

Today, the city says the three-person crews can pick up larger bulk items and are generally more productive. However, a 1998 study by New York City, which switched to two-person crews in the ’80s, found its trash-collection efficiency only dipped by 10 percent after the staff reductions. Eventually, collection rates returned to their original levels, matching those of cities that still employed three-man crews, including Philadelphia.

With the relatively low cost of modern street cleaning and, potentially, sanitation workers to spare, Philadelphia should be poised to introduce more robust litter collection. But the failure to do so may be caused by something much more mundane than money or staff cuts — namely, parking. 

“Many residents do not wish to move their cars [on street-cleaning days]. … Even when we had the limited residential program, many neighborhoods declined the service,” Cantor says.

Indeed, back issues of the Daily News are replete with residents’ complaints about street-cleaning-related parking tickets. But some say the city inspired such neighborhood resistance precisely because it relied on an aggressive ticketing approach in dealing with people who didn’t move their cars. 

In Baltimore, which had faced similar issues with parking compliance in the past, the city is simply cleaning during the day, when there are fewer cars parked on city streets, and experimenting with a voluntary compliance system — basically, if you don’t move your car, you end up being the jerk that’s keeping the block dirty. So far, Raymond says, it seems to be working.

Ultimately, there’s no real excuse for Philadelphia’s failure to continue experimenting with litter removal — beyond mere aesthetics, it’s a service that inspires confidence in local government and raises property values. But local sanitation veterans, like Hoskins, say that the city mostly offers half-efforts.

“Every mayor always wants to have a big cleanup day. But that’s not that helpful because you spend an enormous amount of energy gathering people to clean up the whole city in one day and then two days later it looks dirty again,” he says. “You can’t have a clean city without daily attention.” 

Others say out-of-control trash can also have widespread environmental impacts. In fact, Baltimore’s new street-cleaning program largely grew out of concerns that litter from city streets was destroying the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem.

Retired environmental engineer Kelly O’Day has devoted his golden years to cleaning up Philadelphia’s parks and waterways. But it’s a Sisyphean task because some city storm drains flush directly into streams, like Tacony Creek in Northeast Philadelphia. So, no matter how clean the surrounding parks are kept, trash continues to wash up from nearby streets, and  plastic bags, Styrofoam containers and soda bottles get snagged on rocks and trees or flow into the Delaware.

“[This is] all part of the uncollected trash issue,” says O’Day, reviewing photos he’s taken of trash-filled creek beds. “A lot of it degrades very slowly, so much of it makes its way to the Atlantic Ocean.” 

The city has recognized the problem, and says it has started cleaning “major streets abutting Tacony Creek” once a month. But O’Day, who also advocates for bottle-recycling-reward programs, more sidewalk trash cans and a ban on plastic bags, says the city’s latest effort isn’t enough. 

“While I am grateful, the city needs a lot, lot, lot more,” he says.

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