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Danya Henninger/Billy Penn

No litter in Philly: Inside the plan for zero waste by 2035

A pickup truck just for organic waste; also, behavioral experiments.

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Danya Henninger/Billy Penn
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Philadelphia’s reputation as “Filthadelphia” dates back further than you’d likely imagine. This wasn’t some buzzword created by a politician in the ’80s or by a snotty New Yorker in the ’70s. It’s much deeper, with use of the phrase going back at least 98 years.

In 1919, a well-known doctor complaining about street cleaning was quoted by TIME saying, “Dust is pulverized poison and we have seen in Filthadelphia too much drifting into damned differential silences.”

So we’ve had about 100 years of Filthadelphia. That’s a long time, much longer than the period in which Philadelphia hopes to reverse its dirty fortunes. Within 18 years, Philadelphia wants to be free of litter and waste. The Kenney administration concocted the goal in an executive order late last year, officially recognized as the Zero Waste 2035 campaign. In about three months, the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet will release a series of plans and goals to reduce waste and litter, in ways more complex and data-driven than previous efforts.

But the concept is straightforward: By 2035 Philadelphia wants to have diverted almost all of its waste away from traditional landfills and incinerators and wants the streets to be nearly litter free.

This is how Zero Waste and Litter Director Nic Esposito and the rest of the cabinet plan to get Philadelphia there and what a waste-free city may look like in the coming years:

Citywide organic waste pickup

On garbage days in your neighborhood, two trucks come by — one for recycling and one for typical trash. There’s going to be a third in the future for organic waste, basically any material that comes from a plant or animal. Esposito, a member of Billy Penn‘s “Who’s Next: Community” last year, is confident this will happen and needs to happen to meet the zero waste goal. Right now Philadelphians have to take organic waste to composting sites or pay for a private service.

New York, Portland and Minneapolis have already started an organic waste collection program, as well as other small cities. Esposito said Philadelphia could transition by offering more convenient organic waste sites to finally offering the organic collection.

The Litter Index

Philadelphia announced in March a pilot program called the Litter Index, which will gauge the cleanliness of a couple neighborhoods using a rating of one to four — one being the cleanest and four being the dirtiest. In the near future, Esposito wants Philadelphia to have this system for the entire city.

The hope is the index will provide a guide to which neighborhoods need the most cleaning and education to cut back on litter. Esposito said getting every area of Philadelphia to be rated a one is the top priority of the Zero Waste and Litter cabinet.

Behavioral experiments

One of the problems with Philadelphia’s numerous attempts at getting cleaner has been a lack of hard data. Data will be the driving force behind the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet’s decisions. So the cabinet will be collecting information not just on where litter is the worst in the city but on which punitive measures best curb littering, how much time city departments spend picking up litter, where trash and recycling bins should best be located and whether street sweeping is effective.

“A lot of times, for better or worse, relying on institutional knowledge,” Esposito said. “We also need hard data.”

Some of the data collection may also involve you. The Waste and Litter Cabinet wants to understand why Philadelphians litter or dispose of waste in certain ways. So from time to time the cabinet will be running experiments in different parts of the city to see how different variables affect people’s behavior around waste. A couple of experiments are about to launch. Esposito declined to provide details, saying the results could be flawed if the details were made public.

Less to-go cups (cough, Starbucks)

An easy way to ensure waste is properly disposed is to not produce it in the first place. So the Waste and Litter cabinet will be targeting what Esposito calls a “take-out culture.” In other words, the cabinet wants places like Starbucks to not give plastic cups to everybody who sits in their coffee shops and offer real mugs.