Philadelphia trash piles up as pandemic stymies its removal

What would Ben Franklin think?

The founding father, who launched one of America’s first street sweeping programs in Philadelphia in the late 1750s, saw and smelled piles of fly-infested, rotting household trash, bottles, and cans as the city he described as the homeland struggles to overcome a wave of trash caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It just smells like rot,” said James Gitto, president of the West Passyunk Neighborhood Association in South Philadelphia. Gitto said the situation had turned into “total chaos” by July and he had hired a private recycling company to get his bottles and cans away.

For the city of brotherly love, another unfortunate nickname was “Filthadelphia”. Poverty and garbage often go hand in hand, and in the poorest major city in the country, the plumbing department was understaffed and overworked. The city’s 311 Complaints Office received more than 9,700 calls related to trash and recycling in July, compared to 1,873 in February.

Faced with social distancing restrictions, residents are staying home and generating more trash than ever – about 30% more residential garbage collections, said Road Commissioner Carlton Williams.

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

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

People are cleaning up garages and attics, Williams said. This is on top of household waste, which has increased as more people cook at home or take home take away from restaurants that are not yet fully open. His department also had to clean up after protests over racial injustice.

Fewer plumbing workers are available due to the coronavirus, hindering efforts to get the upper hand on the increased trash. The number of staff varies each week as some crews have to quarantine themselves if a member tests positive, Williams said, making it difficult for the department to keep to the schedule and for residents to know when their trash is being removed becomes.

“If they say it will be two days late, you can handle it. But if you don’t know when it will be picked up, you have to delete it so that it is there when they come and that is the problem when it stays out there for days and days, ”said Jacqui Bowman. who lives in the neighborhood of the university town.

Her rubbish lay on the curb in the summer heat and humidity for nearly three weeks and was soaked from heavy rainfall before posting photos on social media and complaining to a city council member. It was taken away 24 hours later.

“I can fully understand staffing 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, plumbing workers held a protest calling for safer working conditions, hazard payments and more personal protective equipment. In the meantime, they continue to work overtime and try to get back on schedule.

The streets department stopped recycling collections on Monday and Tuesday of this week so crews can only focus on the trash. Residents were asked to dispose of recyclable materials the following week and were told to use six sanitation centers across town to avoid collection delays.

However, getting to a center is not easy for residents like Kara Kneidl from Kensington borough who do not have a car.

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

The Roads Department Commissioner hopes the administration can add new staff to its workforce in August. He couldn’t say how many would be added.

Williams said the increase in garbage cost the city an additional $ 2.5 million to $ 3 million in disposal costs.

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

“I am irritated about the city because I am not better organized with all the taxes we pay and I keep the citizens informed about what is going on,” said Michele Wellard, a Manayunk resident.


Associate press writer Thalia Beaty from New York contributed to this report.

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