Dumping at Fairhill and Annsbury streets in North Philadelphia, as reported to Philly 311 on March 8, 2022

For at least 40 years, Eastwick resident Earl Wilson has been watching as building materials, broken furniture, old appliances, black bags of household trash and other illegally dumped materials pile up in wooded lots along Mario Lanza Boulevard near the airport.

He and his neighbors organize cleanups, call 311, or ask their councilmember to have the Streets Department send out a cleaning crew. But the improvements never last long.

“We clean up, the city comes in with the big tractors and what have you and cleans up areas, and then within two weeks, as any one of the community people will tell you, it’s right back where it was,” Wilson said.

It’s a similar story on the sidewalks and vacant lots around East Auburn and Tulip streets in Port Richmond, especially lately, according to Joy Soto, who bought a house in the neighborhood a year and a half ago.

“Philly has always had a lot of trash, but the dumping I see daily is something I’ve never witnessed before,” Soto said. “I am constantly reporting to 311 about picking up dumping around the corner from me and regularly cleaning up on my street, especially after trash day.”

Whether it’s a hotspot at 3rd and Somerville in Logan, at 8th and McKean in South Philadelphia, under the El at 62nd Street in West Philly, or in wooded areas behind the Mann Center in Parkside, residents say they’re angry and demoralized by the city’s perennial inability get a handle on the illegal dumping problem.

City officials say they sympathize with residents and have made cleanups and dumping prevention a priority.

After two pandemic years that saw the Streets Department struggle to collect trash reliably, and brought a near-halt to police dumping investigations, city leaders swear they’re focused on the problem once again. Councilmember Cherelle Parker said she’s drafting a bill that would double the penalty for illegal dumping to $2,000, and clarify who is legally responsible.

Dumped trash next to a BigBelly can in Center City in March 2020

In interviews, residents and officials offered other ideas for combating the trash problem, such as beefing up the Police Department’s Environmental Crimes Unit, which investigates illegal dumping.

Also mentioned as potential solutions: citywide mechanical street cleaning, more frequent curbside trash pickup, more public trash cans, public education campaigns, and better options for legal, low-cost, bulk waste disposal.

But while there may be support in City Council for more spending on some of these measures, it’s unclear whether Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration will propose additional funding for trash-related programs in its annual budget proposal this week.

Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams declined repeated interview requests, referring questions to recycling director Kyle Lewis. Lewis emphasized that the city already works to educate tire dealers about disposal rules, picks up thousands of tons of dumped trash every year, monitors some 130 frequently-dumped on sites, and uses about 250 surveillance cameras to watch other hotspots.

“I understand the public’s frustration, and we are looking at many options criminally, many options civilly, to bring people to accountability,” said Lewis, who chairs the city’s interdepartmental committee on illegal dumping.

“There are a group of 20 professionals sitting around trying to figure this out, in addition to everyone we work with. We’ve all been working on this problem for a number of years.”

Tires are mixed with trash at a repeat dumping site in Southwest Philadelphia Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Shocking ‘even to hardcore Philadelphians’

Litter and illegally dumped trash don’t just look bad. Trash piles attract rats and other vermin, tires collect rainwater and breed mosquitoes, and hazardous substances like lead can leach from debris. Blight correlates with a variety of social problems; a study in Philadelphia found that cleaning and greening vacant lots leads to less crime, more socializing outdoors and increased perceptions of safety in the surrounding neighborhood.

In addition, dumping and litter tend to be worse in poorer neighborhoods with higher proportions of Black and Latino residents, including a large portion of North Philadelphia and sections of West and Southwest Philadelphia.

Tracking illegal dumping is inherently difficult, but a recent increase in the volume of cleanups by city crews suggest it worsened in 2021 after falling for several years.

From a recent high of over 11,500 tons in 2016, pickups of illegally dumped materials had declined annually to about 6,800 tons in 2019, according to city data. The 2020 figure was about 5,000 tons collected, although the drop may have resulted in part from severe staffing issues in the Streets Department. Last year, collections climbed back up to nearly 7,200 tons.

A log provided by the Streets Department shows crews do several pickups a day at vacant lots, open land, and out-of-the-way industrial areas.

Last Oct. 1, for example, crews made six trips in one day to 20th and Clearfield in North Philadelphia, the site of an overgrown lot, and picked up 47 tons of trash. They returned on two other days that month to collect another 139 tons, and came back again the following month.

In the second week of November they focused on the area around 70th and Essington near the airport, picking up 165 tons of tires and other debris over three days. Early December found them hauling tons of trash from a dead-end street near the Schuylkill River and Richard Allen Preparatory School in West Philly, an industrial section of Tacony along the Delaware River, and a strip mall in Parkside.

Councilmember Cindy Bass, whose district includes the 20th and Clearfield lot, said she believes the city’s trash collection system has not kept up with the trend of denser multifamily housing, and so residents and businesses have grown more brazen about dumping.

“Because we haven’t effectively dealt with it, it’s been continuing to grow,” Bass said. “It has risen to a level that has shocked even those of us who are hardcore Philadelphians… It used to be something that only happened during the evening hours; now people dump in broad daylight. They don’t think much about it. There’s a blatantness. It’s just pretty flagrant.”

Household trash dumped on Wyoming Avenue in 2021 Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Many perpetrators, few arrests

The apparent drop in dumping in 2019 followed a coordinated effort by the police, Streets, the District Attorney’s Office, and the mayor’s now-defunct Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet.

The city began installing hundreds of surveillance cameras at hotspots, police ramped up investigations, and prosecutors pursued more serious charges over lower-level summary offenses.

About half of PPD dumping investigations stem from complaints to the 311 system, said Captain Shawn Trush, who heads the Major Crimes Division and oversees the two-person Environmental Crimes Unit. The rest start with patrol officers or sanitation workers who see newly dumped trash in person or via surveillance cameras.

The detective and officer who make up the Environmental Crimes Unit hunt for information to identify the dumper, such as a piece of mail in the trash or a license plate number on a video recording, Trush said.

Yet even with 250 fixed-location and mobile cameras installed around the city, and potential access to footage from thousands of private cameras, in recent years police have never arrested more than 31 people annually in 2019. But some dumping cases end with no penalties: of the 20 cases adjudicated that year, half were withdrawn or dismissed, according to the DA’s office. Last year there were just 6 arrests, and only one with a higher-level charge.

Asked if assigning more officers to the Environmental Crimes Unit could stop illegal dumping, or what other measures would be required, Trush said he didn’t know.

“I’m not sure how to answer that, honestly, from a strategy standpoint. There needs to be consistent enforcement, and there has to be the general community saying, listen, you just can’t do that,” he said.

Calls for more cameras, stronger penalties, and street-sweeping

District Attorney Larry Krasner, who said he wanted to set up an environmental crimes unit when he took office, thinks his office has the capacity to prosecute many more perpetrators — if the police arrested them.

“Thirty-one cases? That’s nice. I’d love to prosecute 150 of them,” said Krasner. “You can’t have an environmental unit that’s only two people and expect them to generate the work of 10.”

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, whose district includes heavily dumped-on areas of Southwest Philadelphia, also called for expanding the police unit, as well as boosting the Streets Department budget, creating a robust educational campaign, and banning illegal dumpers from receiving city contracts.

“Hopefully we can increase the level of resources for sanitation and the Streets Department, so they can purchase more street-sweeping equipment, more mobile dumpsters, and a significant amount of personal cameras. We should have a budget that could reflect how serious this issue is. We have to take a very aggressive and hard-nosed approach to it,” he said.

Bass seconded the call for more cameras and a bigger environmental crimes unit, and said the city should also acquire smaller trash trucks that can access hard-to-reach locations and institute twice-a-week trash pickup in commercial corridors and trash-heavy areas.

Parker said that in addition to raising the penalties for dumping, she wants to clarify that offenders include the drivers and owners of vehicles used for illegal dumping and the contractors who hire them. She also wants to encourage L&I to be more proactive, for example by seizing dumpers’ vehicles and suspending contractor licenses.

“I don’t want this to be just ‘paper legislation,'” Parker said. “I intend to advocate for additional staff for L&I Code Enforcement so they can actually implement this legislation.”

Trash on a block in the Hartranft neighborhood in 2019 Credit: Alisha Ebling for Thetelegraphfield

Councilman David Oh has also proposed allowing private companies such as towing companies to boot or tow vehicles that are being used for illegal dumping. “The Police Department has stated … that they lack the proper resources to adequately enforce violations, and prosecutions of dumping violations have plummeted in recent years,” Oh said.

The ineffectiveness of efforts to criminally prosecute illegal dumpers has led Streets to consider focusing more on imposing civil tickets or code violation notices (CVNs), according to comments made at a recent meeting of the city’s Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Committee.

Criminal prosecutions “didn’t seem to be gaining as much traction in the past,” said Water Department employee Adam Hendricks, during a summary of Kyle’s remarks. Lewis subsequently confirmed the department’s shift in focus.

It’s unclear exactly how many dumping CVNs the city gives out. The number of electronic tickets for dumping issued by Streets Department enforcement officers has been rising, from 483 in 2017 to 606 last year, but that figure does not include an unspecified number of paper tickets the city also issues. In mid-February Thetelegraphfield requested the full number of notices, but Streets has not provided the data.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Thetelegraphfield covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...