Trash Talk

Give a hoot, but prepare to put your money where your mouth is. 

Let’s talk litter, people, it’s not just a nuisance. Follow me: litter begets more litter, which creates an ugly landscape no one wants to hang out in. That attracts vagrants and criminals, and then businesses and homeowners take off. See where this is going? That pile of wrappers, bottles and plastic bags you step past every day is like a sign saying, “Go ahead, trash the place. We’ve given up here.And it’s all downhill from there.

Philly Streets commissioner Donald Carlton’s advice is straightforward: “The most appropriate action residents can take when they see litter is to pick it up themselves.” Well duh. But what if there’s a whole lot? What if it’s really big garbage? What if I’m tired of watching people just throw their crap on the ground?! 311, baby. Get in line.

According to 311 statistics, there were 50,204 complaints about trash in 2017. It’s not just a Germantown or East Falls problem, but a city-wide issue. Philadelphia has been data-mapping a Litter Index for the last few years thru a program called Zero Waste and Litter. They haven’t produced any solutions yet – they’re working on tools communities can use to target zones, share info, identify resources and create plans that address illegal dumping, pet waste disposal, overflowing trashcans, and other problems identified in their studies.

This December, the city’s litter czar announced Philadelphia will be piloting a street sweeping program in spring of 2019. Apparently we’re the only major US city without regular street cleaning. But then, we never have to run out in our jammies to move the car because we forgot the street sweeper was coming, so… All blessings are mixed, I guess.

And, anyway, street sweeping is only the tip of the iceberg as far as our trash problems go. Even the most basic solutions often create new issues to deal with. Take trash cans. Studies and common sense are in complete agreement: the fewer trashcans in the area, the more litter in the streets. So add more trash cans, problem solved, right?

Ah, but in high-traffic areas, trash cans fill up faster than city services can empty them. So now the rats come. Can’t the community pay to have the trash disposed of? Not without permits from City Council for each trash can, which involves a ton of red tape that the most trash-ridden neighborhoods often don’t have the resources to deal with.

How about enforcement? Again, the parts of the city where garbage is the biggest problem are also the poorest. What good will giving out tickets do if people can’t pay them? And then what, throw them in jail? Neighbors don’t like it but the bottom line remains: how much trash we tolerate in our streets is up to us. promotes regular spring & fall cleanups – you can sign up for announcements, and reach out to your neighborhood Block Captains to initiate your own cleanups. East Falls Town Watch patrols the community’s 1.5 square miles for short dumping and bandit signs, and also occasionally leads cleanups (targeting a high-litter stretch on Ridge under the Twin Bridges this spring).

In Germantown, The Ray of Hope Project works to coordinate similar projects, organizing volunteers and advocating for community-driven solutions. While EF’s Town Watch is a local council committee and TROHP is a private, “non-paid” organization, both function on a grassroots level. Both neighborhoods have also engaged more formal efforts to control litter.

Off & on over the last few years, East Falls Development Corporation has employed a street sweeper to help pick up trash on our riverfront business corridor, with negligible success. In 1995, Germantown created its own municipality tasked with keeping the neighborhood’s business corridor clean. Called the Special Services District, it’s one of 12 in the city, authorized by Council through 2025. The deal is, these SSD’s tax their local businesses to pay for supplemental trash removal services in their area, in this case Germantown & Chelten Aves.

A great idea, businesses jumped on board to support it but when businesses shell out for extra litter control, they expect results. GSSD has been taxing folks for many years, but the streets seem no cleaner, no safer. This fall, GSSD’s executive director stepped down and their Board’s president may or may not have slapped someone at a recent meeting (?!). At December’s public Board meeting, a property/business owner called for their immediate disbanding (!!!).

AJE Vol 174, Issue 11, Pages 1296-1306

The frustrating thing is that Germantown for the most part enthusiastically supports an SSD in concept. Everyone pretty much agrees it’s only right for businesses to share the cost of upkeep for their own corridor, which is where most of the trash is anyway. But these owners can’t keep paying for nothing. And maybe the rates should be scaled so that deeper pockets like banks, industries and businesses that create a lot of trash — such as fast food chains — pick up more of the tab?

Greater transparency and democracy is also needed. For instance, some folks aren’t thrilled that GSSD spent almost $25k last year on events. As a property owner with a degree in Finance pointed out in a follow-up email to the Board and meeting attendees, “It’s disproportionate to be paying 50% of our money to special events when most of it should be going to cleaning.” She has a point.

But then that brings us back to the only real solution that works to control litter: community involvement. A cleaner, greener neighborhood depends on everyone’s cooperation. Events like GSSD’s Great Road Festival can help foster pride in our surroundings, which encourages us to do our part to keep things nice.

Looking ahead for GSSD, word is Cindy Bass is on the case. And so are we!  Your comments are not just welcome but encouraged. Chime in below or email (PS a little bird tells us EFDC has been considering whether an SSD should be in East Falls’ future.)


We reached out to Germantown advocate Lawanda Horton-Sauter (Mission Incorporated) about her take on the trash situation. Here’s her breakdown:

  1. Philly needs increased trash collection in neighborhoods that have commercial corridors. The trash on Germantown Avenue and Chelten Avenue accumulates because it is a busy transportation hub. Folks toss trash near cans that are full and overflowing.
  2. People need to take greater responsibility. If that means a daily “sweep of the stoop,” so be it. Problems like this don’t get solved by posting pictures on Facebook (or complaining on Nextdoor).
  3. Don’t just hold agencies accountable – ask questions. Support them and engage with them so you fully understand their challenges. For example, did you know that:
  • The Streets Department has 37 sweep officers who can issue warnings and tickets to dumpers?
  • An agency called Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP) cleans vacant lots?
  • That by becoming a Block Captain, you can take the initiative and play a role in keeping at least one block clean? Call 215-685-3981 to learn more.

A cleaner, safer neighborhood boosts local business, encourages a feeling of community, and increases general quality of life for everyone.

JANUARY 4, 2019: Special Board Meeting of the GSSD directors, Friday January 4th, 10am (57 Maplewood Mall). Open to the public, if you need special accommodations or would like more info, call 215-821-8145.

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