A group of residents came out to clean up a North Philly dump site on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

As part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service on Monday, I led a team of people in cleaning up a litter-strewn block of North Philadelphia. Over 100 of us spent two and a half hours picking up debris, eventually hauling away more than 10 tons of trash.

Less than 48 hours later, someone illegally dumped a bunch of construction waste on that same block.

To say I didn’t expect that may be a little naive, but it brings up some larger questions: What do we have to do to stop illegal dumping in Philadelphia? What can Philadelphians do to ensure their communities stay clean?

The only way for real change to happen is if elected officials buy into the game plan. We already have community leaders and residents working together to start the process. It takes elected officials to finish it. When they don’t step up, it conveys a defeatist attitude, and continues the narrative that people in positions of power in Philadelphia don’t care about those who put them in office.

It’s not just a few corners in North Philly. This is a citywide problem. I have a few ideas on how to start fixing the issue.

There is an absolute need to add cameras to known illegal dump sites, to create incentive for the dumpers to stop. These wouldn’t just be any cameras — they should be the kind that has motion sensors, with lights that turn on and start recording immediately. I estimate that alone could cut down dumping there by at least 30%.

If, using faces and license plates captured by the cameras, officials started handing out dumping fines greater than $500 — they should be more like $5,000 — the added deterrent has the potential to stop the other 70% of dumpers.

The power to do this lies with the people already in power.

Take the spot that we just cleaned on Monday. It sits right on the border of the districts represented by Councilmember Cherelle Parker and Councilmember Cindy Bass.

The process of getting cameras put up isn’t entirely clear to your average resident, but a councilmember and their staff should know, or be able to find out. I have heard each street camera the city installs costs around $7,000, so it’s understandable to be picky about placing them, but this is a great reason. With higher fines, they could pay for themselves AND keep streets clean.

The North Philly corner that got trashed right after we cleaned it up is in the congressional district of U.S. Rep Brenden Boyle. He’s been very supportive, but also wasn’t too clear on how getting a new camera put up would work.

The location before icleanup Credit: Courtesy Terrill Haigler

On the day of the clean-up, several community members came up to me and told me that they’ve put in multiple 311 tickets for that very spot. They also said they’ve called, emailed, and met with Councilmembers Parker and Bass to voice their concerns around the safety of that block.

I did email Councilmember Parker’s office, and they told me that spot is on their list to address. My concern is, how long does the surrounding community have to wait?

If within 48 hours, someone has already dumped again, time is of the essence. The community can’t wait for phones call to be made and meetings to be set up. We need action now. We need the people in positions of power to not talk but act. We need them to buy into the plan of a clean Philadelphia.

As residents, what we can do is encourage change. After phone calls, emails, and meetings, the only thing we can do is get louder. Tag officials on social media, write op-eds, call news outlets, hold a rally, shout it from the rooftops.

Please sign my petition to add cameras to illegal dump sites in Philadelphia now. If they won’t do it without us pushing, let’s push and make it happen.

Terrill Haigler is a former Philadelphia sanitation worker turned anti-litter activist.