Editor’s Note: Today the City’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet released their comprehensive Action Plan to rid Philly of litter and increase citywide recycling to 90 percent by 2030. The interdepartmental endeavor, established through an Executive Order signed by Mayor Jim Kenney in December 2016, aims to tackle our unrelenting trash problem through behavioral research, data collection, illegal dumping crackdowns, and large-scale coordination between municipal agencies. Charged with bringing the plan’s vision of a litter-free Philadelphia into view is Nic Esposito, director of the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, champion of urban sustainability, and a longtime contributor to Hidden City Philadelphia.
Managing editor Michael Bixler caught up with Esposito to talk neighborhood trash, the scourge of circulars, and the collective wrongs of weekly waste removal.
Michael Bixler: How long have you been on the job as the director of the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet and what have you been able to accomplish so far? What program are you excited about the most?
Nic Esposito: I’ve been on the job since right before the Executive Order was signed in December 2016, so just over eight months. In that short time we have been able to accomplish a lot.
The biggest is completing the Cabinet’s Action Plan that came out today. To have such a comprehensive and coordinated plan with so many different City departments, partner agencies, and other stakeholders is really what’s going to make this plan work. The process we went through to develop the plan was a really inspiring exercise in collaborative government.
Some early wins are the city-wide litter index that got under way on July 1. This is a digitized survey that tracks the location, amount of litter, and the impact of the litter in Philly. Six different departments and agencies are collecting the litter index on our streets, parks, school sites, vacant lots, and waterways.
The other really big, early accomplishment was the revision of Special Events Permits that finally mandate recycling at events as well as gives options for a whole host of Zero Waste options. We want to make Philly a leader in Zero Waste events.
But the biggest thing I’m excited about is Cleanphl.org that was just launched. This website is the front door for information across many city departments for getting resources and information on how to keep your block clean.
MB: What is Philadelphia’s worst litter-related problem and how do we solve it?
NE: At the most basic level, when someone intentionally litters by dropping something on the ground, or unintentionally litters by not securing their trash in their trash can properly and it blows away, that’s frustrating.
But the most egregious issue has to be illegal dumping. When someone has the audacity to pull up to a vacant lot and dump loads of trash because they don’t feel like taking it to the many waste disposal locations in Philly, that’s just a whole other level of disrespect for our city. And we are really going to focus on going after people doing that kind of dumping.
MB: Circulars and free, unsolicited, newspaper delivery are two major contributors to street trash, particularly in Point Breeze and North Philadelphia. Does the City have a plan to address this issue? From experience, posting “Circular-free Property” stickers obtained from the City do absolutely nothing to curb the problem.
NE: Yes, circulars are a problem and something that we need to address. One idea in the Cabinet’s Action Plan is to mandate that circulars need to be designed as door hangers so the person handing them out needs to take the time to place them on the door and that they have less of a chance of blowing away. But whatever course we take, this is just one example of businesses needing to take more responsibility for their actions.
MB: Tell me a little more about your organic waste pick up plan. What will it entail, where will the composting happen, and when can we expect the program to begin?
NE: City-wide composting, or organics collections as we call it, is in its extremely preliminary phase. The Streets Department is currently conducting an Organics Feasibility Study to understand the scope and investment it would take to bring organics collections to the 540,000 households in the city as well as spur action from the business community where most of the organic waste in the city is generated i.e. restaurants, grocery stores etc. But we plan to encourage more backyard composting, and we have the capacity to take organic waste from City permitted events. So we are starting there and expect to grow that effort. You can’t have a Zero Waste goal without organics, so we’re working on it.
MB: The Cabinet’s neighborhood Litter Index initiative is a great idea. How do you plan on collecting this data, and how will it be used?
NE: There are six departments and agencies doing the collections. The way it works is that each department surveys the properties that they are responsible for maintaining. The Streets Department obviously looks at the streets and sidewalks. Parks and Recreation looks at neighborhood parks and recreation centers. CLIP (Community Life Improvement Programs) looks at vacant lots, etc. Ratings are on a 1-4 scale, with 1 being the best and 4 being the worst.
The results are then collected through the digital surveys by field workers. Each participating department will use the data internally to guide their response to litter, and each department is currently developing their internal processes for doing so.
Collectively, we have three options. The first is to look at clusters of the where worst litter ratings, what types of property are getting that rating, and then to work collaboratively with the departments that maintain those properties to have a coordinated response to cleaning up.
The second way is to look for those areas that are doing good with low litter ratings, but that have one type of property in the area that is spiking with a high litter rating. That way we can do an early intervention on the one type of property so it doesn’t drag down the other properties in the area that are looking clean.
The last way is to overlay our city-wide data on other indicators like L&I violations or 311 calls. In regards to 311, this powerful tool only works when people actually call 311 or use the app. If we happen to see an area where there are bad litter ratings, but no 311 calls, then that informs us that we need to do more community outreach in that area as well as clean ups. This will make us more efficiently deliver city services and increase the equity with which we do so.
MB: I think a large part of Philly’s trash problem is how waste is collected by the Streets Department. Sanitation workers have a herculean task of collecting our trash, but, from my observation, they do a neglectful job on trash day getting waste into the truck. On trash collection day, my block is almost always strewn with garbage after sanitation units have been by, and the surrounding blocks are very often dirtier than before. I have witnessed this all over the city for more than a decade. What are your thoughts on correcting this systemic problem?
NE: I am thankful that you recognize the herculean task of our city sanitation workers picking up recycling and rubbish from 540,000 households each week. However, after personally going out on trash trucks and spending a day throwing garbage into the back of a truck, I am a firm believer that the reason for these litter conditions on trash day is really due to improper set outs. Improper set outs are anything from open bags with garbage spilling out of them to appliances or electronic goods that are not supposed to be in curbside trash. If we can better educate people on proper set outs, and stop taking for granted this incredible system of modern society of weekly trash pickup, we can ensure that our sanitation workers will be able to do the best job they possibly can.
MB: Where are the worst areas of illegal dumping and how do these problem points get monitored and enforced?
NE: We have a list of the chronic dumping spots that we are sending to Streets Department and CLIP workers to respond to. However, the litter index and 311 data also track where illegal dumping is being reported both by residents and, now, by municipal employees through the litter index. So, we will have more data on where this is occurring throughout the city. Until we have that more complete picture, I wouldn’t want to say that one neighborhood is worse than the other.
But aside from dumps being reported, we are also trying to rely on our existing camera network throughout the city as well as work with residents and businesses to encourage private people to also monitor their own property or nearby property that is being dumped on. We also work with the police department to monitor frequently dumped spots and have had some preliminary wins of catching dumpers in the act. Our goal is to increase these arrests through better coordination, and use the collaborative nature of the Cabinet to be able to work through the criminal justice process to ensure that not only are illegal dumpers arrested, but also appropriately prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
MB: Litter education is one thing. Providing receptacles for people to follow through with trash disposal is another. Outside of Center City, there are no trash or recycling cans. How does the City expect people to fight the litter problem when there is nowhere to throw their litter away, especially in neighborhoods?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the hundred or so metal bins sitting unused in the yard of the Street Department’s Facilities Management building at 4910 Botanic Avenue next to Bartram’s Mile.
NE: It’s not accurate that there are no trash or recycling cans outside of Center City. Many CDC’s work with the Streets Department and Commerce Department to place and maintain public trash cans. We have them up and down Frankford Ave and many other commercial corridors throughout the City. We also just passed legislation to add new big bellies to Center City and we hope that the current Center City big bellies can be refurbished and redistributed to other neighborhoods throughout the city. What you see at 49th and Botanic Avenue are bins that are being shuffled around or are being refurbished.
To have more cans in neighborhoods, we are actually conducting a study through the behavioral science aspect of the Cabinet to actually study the effects of adding more or less cans in public spaces so that data may inform future investment. It’s also a law on the books that every store that sells take out or prepared food to go (corner stores, cafes, etc.) needs to have a can either on the interior or exterior of their entrance. Block captains can also register to “adopt-a-bin” and monitor a bin in their neighborhood. So again, we are doing our part to figure out how to get more bins in an area, but we also love to see community groups like Fishtown Neighbors who did the “Feed the Fish” program to get more public trashcans maintained by businesses in their area. We all need to work together.
MB: Tell me a little more about these behavioral experiments that the Waste and Litter Cabinet plan to conduct. What are some specific examples and what kind of data do you hope to extract from them?
NE: These are experiments that we conduct in partnership with behavioral scientists from area universities and the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative organized through GovLabPHL. One experiment we conducted was the effect on litter conditions and recycling diversion rates when we find localized public spaces, in this case a recreation center, to hand out bins to neighbors that also had lids on the bins. We are still waiting for the results of that experiment.
It seems like a no brainer that more bins will lead to more recycling and bins with lids will reduce litter. But, when you’re spending tax dollars on bins for hundreds of thousands of residents, you need to go on more than what you think may happen. Same goes for placing public trash cans around the city. That’s why we’re conducting these experiments.
MB: There has been a lot of talk on online forums about the need for the City to bring back street cleaning. Does this basic, universal municipal service factor into the Zero Waste 2035 campaign and, if not, why?
NE: In the plan, we do make the recommendation to once again explore the feasibility of restoring regular street cleaning citywide. We need to study the actual investment needed to do this and the return on investment we will get if we do it. A lot of people think of street sweeping as a no-brainer, but don’t realize they are really thinking about it in terms of how it will affect their specific neighborhood. Different neighborhoods could be impacted in different ways. There are significant operational challenges to fully restoring this service and we need to understand both of those.