Litter on a South Philly sidewalk (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

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A union grievance has thrown a wrench in the gears of an agreement between the city and a startup that tackles the pervasive litter on Philly streets and sidewalks.

In early March, crews from the city’s Streets Department abruptly stopped doing specially coordinated pickups of trash swept and bagged by privately contracted gig workers. The special pickups had been happening since last July, when the program was launched in partnership with Glitter

“It was one of the most optimistic programs we had,” Glitter CEO Brandon Pousley told Billy Penn. “It was a huge change for the neighbors. I have countless notes from people saying, ‘I’m so glad to have the city finally step up to help with this.’”

Glitter is still sweeping the same number of blocks around the city (around 175, at time of publication). On the 45 blocks that were in the pilot partnership, it has now recruited neighbors to hold onto the bags of collected trash for an extra week. 

The city’s sanitation union, AFSCME District Council 33 Local 427, filed a grievance earlier this year alleging the city violated labor contracts when it agreed to the arrangement. 

The union argues the pickup coordination is a violation because Glitter is a for-profit business charging customers a fee for work performed by non-union contractors, according to Streets Department spokesperson Keisha McCarty-Skelton.

In a March 3 letter to Glitter, Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams wrote that his department “must suspend the partnership” with the company until the Office of Labor Relations holds a hearing and determines whether the city violated the union contract.

Local 427 president Charles Carrington declined to comment for this story, saying he could not discuss an open grievance.

This isn’t the first time Philadelphia has pulled back on a plan to allow the Center City-based litter startup to fill gaps in municipal waste management. 

Back in 2018, Morgan Berman, who then headed mission-oriented tech firm Milkcrate, built an app that would let residents report litter and community members sign up to get paid to sweep streets. 

Funding was added to the city’s 2020 budget to pay cleaners hired through the app, but Streets Dept. officials declined to execute the contract. Berman said a charitable foundation agreed to match the city’s contribution, but Streets reportedly rejected the idea as an “unproven pilot,” saying it needed instead to prioritize its reboot of cleaning with street-sweeping vehicles.

Frustrated, Morgan partnered with sanitation activist Ya Fav Trashman to dump trash bags on the steps of the Municipal Services Building in July 2021, as a protest against the city’s failure to get a handle on litter. They also demand Commissioner Williams’ resignation. 

In September 2021, they launched a redesigned Glitter app that let neighbors and corporate sponsors pay for weekly block cleanings. Ya Fav Trashman later left the partnership, and Glitter discontinued its app in favor of web-based signups. For some of the blocks, they eventually negotiated an agreement with the Streets Department to have crews pick up bags of collected trash. 

Pousley, the CEO, believes Glitter has made a visible impact, especially on the 45 blocks that were part of the city’s bag-collection effort, and is frustrated by the standoff.

“What are the actual boundaries?” Pousley said. “If the union is claiming that the city cannot coordinate with a private organization to do any work that touches a city sidewalk or street, I actually feel that there’s potentially dozens of organizations who are now at risk.”

Persistent concerns about labor contracts

Labor issues have shadowed Berman’s efforts from early on. Councilmember Mark Squilla, who helped get Glitter’s first proposal inserted into the city’s 2020 budget, said this week that city officials scuttled the plan in part over concerns that paying outside workers to pick up trash could run afoul of union contracts.

The recent grievance was filed shortly before the city announced an expansion of its mechanical street sweeping pilot. The expanded program will include manual sweeping with brooms, like Glitter offers.

Pousley said he thinks the timing is not a coincidence, but he doubts the city and union have the capacity to emulate or replace Glitter’s cleaners. 

“Based on our history of knowing what gets done and what doesn’t get done, we’re very skeptical that that can happen, which is why we started this organization at all,” he said.

(L to R) Glitter founder Morgan Berman, Councilmember Mark Squilla, Glitter CEO Brandon Pousley, subscriber Joe Matje, and cleaner Emily Rector. (Courtesy Glitter)

Streets spokesperson McCarty-Skelton declined to make a department official available for an interview, or answer questions about whether the grievance and expanded street sweeping pilot meant the city intended to take over cleaning from Glitter. 

She instead provided a brief description of the union complaint and defended the sometimes-controversial, 4-year-old street sweeping pilot, saying the Kenney administration had made “significant budget investments” to clean up the most littered neighborhoods. 

“The administration has annually earmarked funding for street cleaning through investments for additional crews and equipment,” she said, with the end goal of expanding to citywide street sweeping. The administration has not announced a target date for when that might happen.

Squilla, who helped Glitter arrange the bag pickups, said he hoped the grievance would be resolved in a way that allows coordinated cleanups to continue in some form.

“We wouldn’t support something that would break a contract, so once the ruling comes down, we’ll decide at that point how to operate,” Squilla said. “But I really think the program is great. It gets people from the community involved, it gets people who need a couple of dollars to make some money, and also keeps the area clean. To me, it’s a win-win.”

While the city is not spending any money on the more recent Glitter program, the sanitation union appears to be concerned about the company’s for-profit status. 

The city generally does not pick up commercial waste, except for trash from some small businesses that pay an annual fee. Larger businesses pay for private trash haulers.

Even when dealing with non-profit business improvement districts (BIDs) that do neighborhood street cleaning, the city tries to avoid picking up privately collected trash, said Bryan Fenstermaker, CEO of the City Avenue Special Services District and a member of the Philly BID Alliance. As a result, BIDs that collect substantial amounts of litter often hire private haulers at their own expense.

“The city has been reluctant to collect the waste from individual organizations directly – which might be similar to the issue that halted the Glitter project,” Fenstermaker said. 

How Glitter works: Neighborhood crowdfunding for targeted cleaning

Glitter differs from most neighborhood-based community cleanups because it could theoretically evolve into a citywide option. 

Under its overall business model, residents and businesses on about 175 blocks around the city pool their funds to come up with street-cleaning fees. As some grant-funded projects roll out, the number of blocks will grow to nearly 1,000 by the end of this year, company founder Berman said.

Participating residents often bring up two problems Glitter doesn’t fully address, CEO Poulsey said: illegal dumping, and the swirl of litter that remains after weekly curbside trash pickup.

“Neighbors almost universally come to us and say, ‘The day when the block looks its worst is immediately following trash and recycling pickup by the city.’ Some items aren’t picked up, the wind knocks over things, a bag is missed from the back of a truck, or a bottle breaks on its way in and causes a mess,” he said.

For the 45 blocks that were part of the recent pilot with the city, they scheduled Glitter cleanups to happen immediately after curbside pickup by sanitation crews. In consultation with the Streets Department, the company designated 25 strategically located corners where its workers left the bags. 

There, the bagged trash was picked up by a second set of city crews — those who usually empty public trash cans and visit blocks that were missed during curbside trash removal. That saved the residents the trouble of storing all that bagged trash for a week, and kept the blocks looking much cleaner, Pousley said.

When the city suspended coordinated bag pickups in early March, residents on about half of the affected blocks were able to store the bagged trash on their own and put it out for weekly curbside collection, he said. 

But that doesn’t address the general problem or offer a model for expansion to more neighborhoods, he noted. That can only happen with cooperation from the city. 

“The Streets Department is willing to lend a hand to help out community groups here and there,” Poulsey said, “but when it’s something that approaches fixing the problem at scale and their leadership is most needed — that’s when it seems to fall apart.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated the city had stopped picking up Glitter’s collected trash; the bags are getting picked up eventually, just not during a specially coordinated run.

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