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Philadelphia trash piles up as pandemic stymies its removal

By Staff | Jul 31, 2020

Trash rests piled up on a street Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. The COVID-19 pandemic has frustrated efforts to keep Philadelphia's streets clear of garbage this summer. Residents complain about the stink and the flies. (Kara Kneidl via AP)

What would Ben Franklin think?

The Founding Father who launched one of America’s first street-sweeping programs in Philadelphia in the late 1750s would see and smell piles of fly-infested, rotting household waste, bottles and cans as the city that he called home struggles to overcome a surge in garbage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s just the smell of rot,” said James Gitto, president of the West Passyunk neighborhood association in South Philadelphia. Gitto said the situation devolved through July into “a total mess” and he hired a private recycling company to haul away his bottles and cans.

For the City of Brotherly Love, another unfortunate nickname has been ” Filthadelphia.” Poverty and litter often go hand in hand, and in the nation’s poorest big city, the sanitation department has been short-handed and overworked. The city’s 311 complaint line received more than 9,700 calls about trash and recycling in July, compared with 1,873 in February.

Faced with social distancing restrictions, residents are staying home and generating more trash than ever before — about a 30% increase in residential trash collections, said Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams.

“I’ve never seen the amount of tonnage,” Williams said.

Baltimore and Memphis are among some of the cities facing similar problems. In Boston, some residents have reported rats the size of cats.

People are cleaning out garages and attics, Williams said. That’s in addition to household trash that has increased as more people cook at home or bring home takeout from restaurants that have not yet fully opened. His department also has had to clean up after protests over racial injustice.

Fewer sanitation workers are available because of the coronavirus, which stymies efforts to get an upper hand on the increased trash. The number of employees varies each week because some crews must self-quarantine if a member tests positive, Williams said, making it difficult for the department to stay on schedule and for residents to know when their trash will be removed.

“If they say it’s going to be two days late, you can deal with that. But if you don’t know when it’s going to be picked up, you have to put it out so that it’s there when they come, and that’s the problem if it’s left out there for days and days and days,” said Jacqui Bowman, who lives in the University City neighborhood.

Her trash sat at the curb for nearly three weeks in the summer heat and humidity and got drenched by heavy rainstorms before she posted photos on social media and complained to a city council member. It was taken away 24 hours later.

“I can totally understand manpower issues related to the virus, but you don’t want to add another public health issue to the existing public health issue,” she said.

In June, sanitation employees staged a protest calling for safer working conditions, hazard pay and more personal protection equipment. Meanwhile, they continue to work overtime trying to get back on schedule.

The Streets Department suspended recycling collections on Monday and Tuesday this week so crews could focus just on trash. Residents were told to place recyclables out the following week and were encouraged to use six sanitation centers throughout the city to avoid collection delays.

However, getting to a center is not easy for residents such as Kara Kneidl, of the Kensington neighborhood, who does not have a car.

“I can’t walk my trash to a location miles and miles away, and we shouldn’t have to,” she said.

The Streets Department commissioner is hoping the administration can supplement its workforce by hiring new employees in August. He could not say how many would be added.

Williams said the increase in trash was costing the city an extra $2.5 million to $3 million in disposal costs.

Many residents believe better communication would help ease some of their frustrations.

“I’m irritated at the city for not being more organized with all the taxes we pay and keeping the citizens informed about what’s going on,” Manayunk resident Michele Wellard said.

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