By G.S. Potter | ecoWURD.com Contributor
If Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney isn’t careful, his ambitious “Zero Waste by 2035” plan to clean his city could easily, well, turn into garbage.
After all, as Michaella Bond argues in the Inquirer, Philly “is so dirty, the city wants residents and business owners to help collect trash.” It’s no mystery: Philly produces over 1.5 million tons of trash annually – nearly 1 ton, on average, per resident – and BusyBee cleaning services ranked it 5th among the “Dirtiest Cities in America.” Garbage-littered streets, sidewalks, and lots are nothing new in the City of Brotherly Sludge.
Yet, of the 20 largest cities, Philly is the only one without a basic street-cleaning program. City Hall promises a “pilot” in the near future – but, why so long to do even that, and why so little?
Indeed, Philly’s trash problem is about to get so bad that it will need more than a pilot program to fight it. And in a recent and unexpected twist, Trump’s trade war with China is making it worse, especially since China abruptly ended its practice of accepting what it now calls “foreign garbage.”
WHAT’S CHINA GOT TO DO WITH PHILLY?
Yeah, that China. And, in terms of Philly’s trash, it seems like quite a bit these days.
Prior to China’s 2016 New Year’s Eve announcement to the World Trade Organization that it would accept no more trash from the West, America’s primary economic rival used to take in 106 million metric tons, or 45%, of the worlds plastic recyclables. That policy intensified in April 2018 as an immediate response to the Trump Administration’s passage of tariffs on Chinese goods, with Beijing imposing heavy tariffs on recyclable U.S. metals and plastics. This was China implementing a “National Sword” strategy designed to curb pollution and environmental degradation, no longer taking in the waste of Western countries.
Catching the world off guard, that move by China created a domino effect.
It forced the US, Britain, Japan and others to scramble and decide on what to do with hundreds of millions of tons of waste overflow. Canada is filling up storage sheds, trailers, and warehouses. In Europe, new technologies are being developed to push forward a plan to launch an entirely new recycled plastics industry bolstered by policy calling for the use of only 100% recycled plastics.
And in the United States, cities like Philadelphia are starting to implement a popular go-to problem-solving strategy: blame local residents and tax or fine Black people.
In many ways, it’s no different from that long standing and long studied practice of cities (take Ferguson, Missouri as an example) that rely heavily on fines, citations and fees heavily weighed against Black residents. Philadelphia city courts, for instance, have long relied on “user-funded” court fees and fines, as a 2018 Philadelphia Weekly article points out, that disproportionately hit low-income and Black residents. There is also growing resistance from many residents in recent years to Philly’s practice of property tax abatements in which newer, Whiter residents aren’t paying property taxes for 10 years, but native, long-time and disproportionately low-income Black residents are still forced to.
As the U.S.-China trade conflict exacerbates America’s already serious trash management problem, city halls across the country are ramping up their efforts to pass the buck directly past manufacturers and retailers and straight towards individuals and consumers.
In Philadelphia that buck – from property assessments to property taxes to parking fines – is typically tossed right past White and more affluent residents and into the pockets of Black households. In the case of trash, it could land there again despite the city having a $100 million sanitation budget. And so, the conversation in City Hall is positioned to put increased pressure on residents, thereby inadvertently putting the blame and burden on them for both Trump’s losing battle with China and Philthadelphia’s losing battle with garbage.
SHIFTING BLAME AND RESPONSIBILITY
To be fair, neither Kenney or City Council started the trash problem in Philadelphia. That issue goes back more than a couple of generations now. In fact, at one point, long ago, (in a galaxy far away, it seems), Philly was actually dubbed the Nation’s Cleanest Town by the National Clean Up and Paint Bureau. But, that’s no longer the case today, clearly.
Instead, today, City Hall escalated the problem in a way that should have 44 percent of Philly’s citizens very concerned. Rather than fine companies that use excessive packaging, increase the number of waste management facilities and Streets Department personnel, or acknowledging that there are literally thousands of cities across the globe implementing strategies to effectively manage their waste and adopting them, the Mayor and City Council are putting that responsibility mostly on residents.
It’s a plan that was put into place well before China launched efforts to turn the West into a trash heap. Now that cities are starting to feel the impact of Trump’s failed Trade War, efforts to impose fines, fees, citations and, in some instances, jail time, could go into overdrive. Similar efforts to increase fines were also launched through Kenney’s Zero Waste and Litter Action Plan and the passage of the Litter Enforcement Corridor Bill.
Introduced last year by now federally indicted Councilman Bobby Henon, the Corridor law identifies 84 communities to “enhanced litter enforcement.” These areas will see increases in fines for dumping and cameras to catch offenders in action. Fines will range from $500 to $5,000, and it could amount to not only “vehicle seizures,” but jail time, as well. And while the city claims it doesn’t have enough money for a street cleaning program and Streets Department enforcement personnel, it has enough money to install cameras that cost $5000 a piece in efforts to criminalize Illegal dumpers.
The problem is that the overwhelming demographic composition of residents in these corridors are typically low-income, Black and Brown. Hence, there are worries it could easily turn into yet another Philly fining regime that targets residents already too cash-strapped to pay for garbage transport and dumping. As Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations’ Beth McDonnell told WHYY in October: “Fines are only useful as a tool if the City dramatically boosts investment in staff capacity to catch people in the act of littering, ensure fines are collected and do both in a highly visible way that deters would-be litterers. Alternatively, we should invest in bringing back citywide street sweeping, continue boosting commercial corridor cleaning contracts, and focus strategies on transit stops that are major litter hot spots.”
Indeed, as many residents and advocates know, the city has had a habit of saying one thing and doing something quite different. As WHYY’s Aaron Moselle and Ryan Briggs revealed in January, the Philadelphia Parking Authority has been ticketing resident cars (in disproportionately distressed neighborhoods) for blocking streets during designated street sweeping schedules. Yet, more than 75 percent of the time, the street sweepers don’t show up.
THE QUEST FOR A BETTER WASTE STRATEGY
In a statement reported by the Philadelphia Tribune, Kenney explains that “[i]nstalling cameras [in litter enforcement corridors] is a key piece of how we are tracking down the people that dump in our neighborhoods on a regular basis. By monitoring the footage captured on these cameras, we will be able to better prosecute and impose fines on the people who repeatedly dump in our neighborhoods.”
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez followed-up with a double-down. “We are watching you and we are going to lock you up,” said the Councilwoman. “Legislating this is one angle of it. Allowing people to think they can come into working neighborhoods like this and dumping is something that we take personally. So we are watching you, and we are going to take your cars.”
But that “watching” transforms into blaming vulnerable and mostly Black residents for problems that are really generated by a combination of elected officials and polluting industries. This is the case especially when it comes to Philadelphia’s trash problem. Mayor Kenney’s plan is somewhat of an extension of previous Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to blame vulnerable residents for the City’s complete failure to produce a decent waste management strategy.
Under Nutter’s Unlitter Us initiative, the City planned an aggressive effort to clean up its trash once and for all. But, it wouldn’t be with street cleaners or increased access to garbage cans or more dumping and recycling infrastructure or added garbage trucks with trained personnel or restrictions on package manufacturing and retailing.
It would be with spoken word poets.
Spoken. Word. Poets.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The message will be carried through block-by-block community programs and PSAs from spoken artists, rhythmically talking about the beauty of a clean city, and urging people to use a trash can.”
Implicit in Unlitter Us, with its hip-hop focus, is messaging that blames Black neighborhoods for the problems created by the City itself. Philadelphia isn’t the first, the only, or even the largest city to have to manage waste. City Hall just can’t manage a basic function. Instead of admitting that and hiring a team to redesign their Waste Management Strategy to more closely align with other successful cities, Philadelphia seems inclined to replay a strategy of blaming residents, particularly Black residents, over and over again.
The scapegoating of Black Philadelphians has entered a new phase, though, when it comes to city waste.
While Mayor Nutter’s plan largely focused on messaging strategies and promoting the acceptance of blame, Mayor Kenney’s plan goes straight to enforcement and penalties. In addition to placing cameras in poor neighborhoods across Philadelphia, city hall will increase fines for short dumping, requiring community service hours for dumping violations, seizing vehicles that are used to short dump, and retooling the court system to streamline illegal dumping cases.
That heightens the risk of poor Black Philadelphians being blamed for the City’s trash failures – and paying the price for them, too. Which is no different from the city’s predatory parking strategy. And so, bad enough Philly didn’t have much of a plan to manage pre-Trump era levels of waste to begin with. But, now that China is refusing to take recyclables from the U.S., the latest plans are potentially dangerous.
A LOT MORE GARBAGE ON THE WAY
With more garbage comes more consequences. Chester, PA, right next door, knows all about that.
Their Covanta Incinerator has already seen an increase in approximately 200 tons of recycling material per day since China’s ban on “foreign garbage” was enacted.
China’s ban on American garbage intersected with the end of the Philly’s contract with Republic Services – which is, curiously, based in Phoenix, Arizona. In past years, Philadelphia went from being paid for its recyclables to paying $4 per ton to paying $40 per ton. When the contract came up for renewal recently, Republic Services raised the price to $170 per ton. This extreme shift in cost forced Philadelphia to seek out other options. Hence, the sudden need for the Covanta Incinerator.
To transport those recyclables, the City forced itself into accepting a contract with Waste Management, but at a cost to both Philly and its residents. Philadelphia would have to absorb another price increase of $80 per ton just for transport. Under the new contract, half of Philadelphia’s recyclables would be incinerated rather than repurposed.
This means that poor Black and Brown residents in and around Chester, especially those living close to incineration facilities, will see increases in air pollution and associated health problems such as asthma and respiratory disease.
“Some experts worry that burning plastic recycling will create a new fog of dioxins that will worsen an already alarming health situation in Chester,” the The Guardian reports. “Nearly four in 10 children in the city have asthma, while the rate of ovarian cancer is 64% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania and lung cancer rates are 24% higher, according to state health statistics.” It is unclear how ticketing people for littering and dumping will resolve that issue – other than to pay for the increased cost of shipping waste tonnage that continues to aggravate it.
THE TRADE WAR TAKES IT FROM BAD TO WORSE
Because of Trump’s Trade War with China, the U.S. and the Western world have a waste management crisis on their hands. In the United States, localities are expected to take the hit. With that being the case, cities should engage in an honest dialogue about what we are facing, returning the blame back to the federal government and demanding they provide the support necessary for localities to redesign their waste management strategies and infrastructures. It should be about implementing the most effective strategies available.
However, cities like Philadelphia are showing signs of taking the easy way out. The burden of recycling and street cleaning is being placed increasingly on residents.
Worse, in efforts to deflect attention from their inability to properly plan (particularly against the failures of the Trump administration) cities risk scapegoating low income and mostly Black and Brown residential communities to the point of criminalization. The threat to public health, safety, and freedom from incarceration now intersects with the estimated 111 million tons of extra garbage piling up in the U.S. by 2030.
An alternate “green” strategy could challenge the core causes of pollution, versus reliance on enforcement tools that could lock up more economically distressed residents in Philadelphia and beyond. Mayor Jim Kenney’s willingness to blame distressed residents for a problem Philadelphia created and Trump exacerbated is problematic. Wasting time, money, and energy with research, programs, and anti-Black initiatives while there is a waste centered catastrophy happening could quickly turn into a renewed abuse of power. As waste piles up in Philly, many residents could see the growth of yet another predatory fees system and a new trash-to-prison pipeline no one saw coming.