Nearly two years ago, longtime Philadelphia resident Matthew George came home to find take-out cartons, plastic bags, and crumbled paper scattered across his street. His home, a place that was supposed to bring relief and peace from the stresses of the outside world, was visual evidence of a growing trash epidemic in the city.
He immediately got to work.
Inspired by his neighbor, who had placed an additional trash can across the street, George launched a GoFundMe campaign to purchase 10 44-gallon trash cans for his community. In just 24 hours he surpassed his goal and soon after launched I Love Thy Hood with his now wife, Bria Howard.
Funds were initially used to place additional trash cans on commercial streets or donated to local businesses in the area, but local residents can now request their own bright orange trash can, a matching set of garbage bags and a lock and key. Residents agree to empty the trash into large dumpsters or bring the bags out when the trash collector stops by weekly.
“Every inch of the city [where] you see this issue there’s a can there,” George says. “And they’re all being handled by the people that adopted these cans… It can be manned by one person or an entire block.” George himself is in charge of four trash cans in his vicinity, where he stops by at least twice a week to change bags and bring them to the nearest dumpster.
Since George and Howard started I Love Thy Hood in their Germantown neighborhood in 2019, the program has expanded to neighborhoods such as Kensington and Port Richmond, with more than 90 cans across Philly. The couple works on this passion project outside of their full-time jobs, aiming to make it easier for people to toss litter. “If you just know a trash can is near, 99% of the time you’ll put effort towards that and [throw] that trash out,” George says.
Street litter is a particular problem in Germantown, a neighborhood with a high concentration of people commuting in and out for job opportunities. This, according to George, generates an abundance of trash along commercial areas.
Waste management in the neighborhood used to be handled by the Germantown Special Services District (GSSD) ー a municipal authority primarily funded by local businesses and property owners that swept the streets and collected trash every week.
In addition to the high turnover in leadership (the group went through four executive directors in five years), the GSSD faced immense backlash in 2018, according to WHYY, after fiscal mismanagement left it without a budget and with no money in the bank. As a result, local businesses and property owners contested the public hearing that was set to approve the group’s next five-year budget, and GSSD was left without its primary source of funding.
George saw this friction firsthand when he canvassed the neighborhood about the trash crisis.
“I learned that already there was a kind of relationship broken between the sanitation services in my neighborhood in Germantown and business owners… local businesses were told to fend for themselves. And they needed assistance. [A solution] had to be from the people and would only work if they got on board with it,” he states.
Scratching the surface of a littering problem has revealed deeper systemic shortcomings in Philadelphia. The pandemic has shined a light on the city’s continued struggles with waste management. For example, in 2020 garbage collection fell behind schedule as trash bags piled up on the streets. “For the first time,” George says, “trash was an issue across all of Philly.” And COVID-related budget cuts led Mayor Jim Kenney to dissolve the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, an initiative meant to reduce litter and illegal dumping.
Philadelphia was not the only city to confront this predicament. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, garbage collection backed up in other cities such as Atlanta and Nashville; as residential trash across U.S. cities increased by 25%. But cities such as Boston that had initially reported increased tonnage have since seen levels go back down.
Last year the Philadelphia Streets Department produced a flyer with tips on how to curb household waste. The department contends that they are still affected by staff shortages and excessive trash tonnage. WHYY previously reported on these difficulties in July 2020, when sanitation workers blamed poor trash collection on mismanagement after several workers contracted COVID.
Neither Commissioner Carlton William nor Deputy Streets Commissioner Keith Warren have responded to Next City’s requests for an interview. The department’s only statement about recent backups with trash collection came through a press release on June 13, where officials say they plan to address staff shortages by promoting their temporary workers to full-time status.
Jeannine Cook, owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, understands that the pandemic has affected the entire city in the same way it affected her business. Her store began to host sidewalk sales in an attempt to limit the amount of people shopping indoors. This caused trash to pile up outside her storefront. In response, one of Cook’s neighbors threatened to call the police for an issue that was out of her control.
She expresses frustration that residents had not banded together more to create a better neighborhood. “We take these… valid community issues and then we take them and weaponize the police as opposed to trying to find a solution,” Cook says. She purchased a trash can to collect the litter around her storefront. It was stolen, and she replaced it. That one was stolen, too. This happened six consecutive times.
Cook now relies on the I Love Thy Hood trash can that was donated to her in December 2020 to keep her storefront clean. Speaking about the effects of COVID-19, she believes the pandemic has done more than just increase the amount of trash to be collected.
“A lot of institutions get stuck in doing things the way they’ve always done it and not really innovate… Anytime we as citizens can take on things that we’ve outsourced I think it’s better for everybody. The city and state can’t be in charge of everything and always get it right.”
For now, I Love Thy Hood has caught the eyes of the city. George is surprised by their support of his program, “they have shown that they want that change as well and are ready to implement those ideas,” George claims.
The Streets Department has demonstrated some effort to resolve excess litter through different pilot programs. Billy Penn reports that in 2019, the city created Community Cans, a public-private partnership that provided supplementary trash cans in commercial districts. Similar to I Love Thy Hood, residents and commercial tenants had to agree to put out the bags with their regular garbage collection. In residential neighborhoods, the Streets Department also initiated Philacan, which places extra cans in areas where residents have limited outdoor space to store their trash.
But the status of these programs is unclear. Attempts to speak to the city about the progress of Community Cans were unfruitful and the Office of Sustainability provides no updated information about the program on their website.
Philacan’s website still allows residents to sign up, but the process is cumbersome. Residents must collect signatures from 75% of their block’s residents to approve their participation in the program. The Streets Department publicly shares data on the blocks that have signed up for Philacan; this information appears to have not been updated since December. Regardless, the majority of the blocks in the pilot program have failed to reach the 75% threshold, leaving them without any support.
For now, residents must rely on community initiatives such as I Love Thy Hood to combat as best they can Philadelphia’s litter problem and substandard trash collection.
“People [have to show they] want to protect their environment, their businesses, all of that,” George says, “Basically that’s where the name comes from, I Love Thy Hood. It’s to give respect to the place you come from, where you live, where you work, because that’s what made you.”
Solcyre (Sol) Burga was an Emma Bowen Foundation Fellow with Next City for summer 2021. Burga is completing her degree in political science and journalism at Rutgers University, with plans to graduate in May of 2022. As a Newark native and immigrant, she hopes to elevate voices of underrepresented communities in her work.