A Streets Dep. staffer shows off a 35-gallon trash can to North Philly residents

Updated 10:55 a.m.

Picture this: On a densely packed residential block in Philadelphia, each and every rowhome is fronted by a giant green garbage can. The next block looks the same. And the one after that. The idea might seem crazy — the look is almost suburban — but it could become a reality.

Over the next six months, the Streets Department is testing a program called PhilaCan, which will provide 35-gallon trash receptacles to homeowners who apply.

Based on a similar initiative in Baltimore, the project is designed to reduce litter — which is why it’s being piloted in a small rectangular section of North Philadelphia that’s among the neighborhoods with the worst litter pile-up in the city.  All 2,090 houses within the area of Broad to 18th and Cecil B. Moore to Cumberland are eligible to participate.

“We want to roll out and address those areas first,” said Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams at a community meeting Tuesday night. “The ultimate goal is to run a citywide program. These are expensive cans, so it’s going to be resource-driven.”

This experiment comes on the heels of a Philadelphia study that determined trash cans with lids could help reduce the city’s litter problem. Philly is currently the only major city in the U.S. without a municipal street sweeping program.

Municipal trash cans in Baltimore Credit: Baltimore City Department of Public Works

The PhilaCan pilot will cost $150,000, paid for by a state grant. Streets began looking into this solution in early 2018 — alongside stakeholders like Council President Darrell Clarke, Temple University, the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet and a few neighborhood block captains.

For now, the program is totally voluntary. Residents within the boundaries can sign up online or via email. And in the next few weeks, a team of Streets Dept. staffers will go door to door to sign neighbors up with paper applications.

Come March 1, the city will evaluate the program’s success and decide whether to keep it going.

What will success look like? Per Williams, if residents use the trash cans effectively and they actually reduce litter, the city will try to implement it in other neighborhoods with high rates of litter — and perhaps eventually the entire city.

Keep it clean, secured and graffiti-free

To score a trash can, applicants must get 75 percent of the residents on their block to agree to participate.

The receptacles being doled out are durable, with tight-fitting lids, designed to keep trash from blowing around and rodents from sneaking in. They’re also embedded with an RFID chip, so each one is tied to a specific address. Despite that, the Streets Dept. recommends the cans be secured to the house they’re matched with, because even with that chip, the city doesn’t promise it will find a lost or stolen container — which will remain city property — and it won’t supply a second one.

A few other rules apply to those receiving the free bins (and Streets can issue tickets for violations):

  • You have to keep the lid on the can
  • You have to keep it clean
  • You can’t overflow the cans with trash
  • You can’t throw stray litter in (bagged trash only)
  • You have to keep it outside, especially on trash day
  • You can’t mark up the can in any way

Perhaps right now you’re thinking the program sounds complicated. The Streets Department agrees it might have its flaws.

But the idea is working elsewhere. Baltimore rolled out its $9 million municipal trash can program two years ago. Although residents admit the trash cans are pretty ugly, they’ve also reported less litter and fewer rodents scurrying around their neighborhood.

“Nobody thinks it looks good to have a row of monster green trash cans lining your street, but I’ll trade that for rats any day,” Baltimore resident Mark Parker told the Baltimore Sun.

‘A band-aid on an open wound’

As for local opinion, many North Philly residents are skeptical.

The Streets Dept. presented the whole idea to residents on Tuesday evening at the Tanner Duckrey School on Diamond Street near 15th. Some thought the program could never work in a neighborhood increasingly dominated by apartment complexes and transient residents (i.e. Temple students).

“This is a nice idea if we had homeowners on our block,” said Cassandra Knight, who lives on the 2200 block of Carlisle Street. “But our block is 95 percent students, and they think every day is trash day.”

Knight doesn’t even think the pilot will last — she doubts Streets will be able to get landlords of big apartment complexes to sign up.

“This is a band-aid on an open wound,” she said.

On Tuesday nights, North Philadelphia residents were made to watch a slideshow of trash photos taken in their neighborhood. Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

The Tuesday evening meeting wasn’t all pessimism. Tinamarie Russell of the North Central Philadelphia CDC thinks it’s an idea worth trying.

“We have to try something,” Russell said. “If it doesn’t work, we have alternatives. But if does work, just think about the quality-of-life difference.”

Council President Clarke, whose district includes the pilot area, is also on board.

“Let’s give it a shot,” Clarke said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to do something. I think everybody agrees that [the litter here] is ridiculous.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...