The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Sep 26, 2012
By Thom Nickels
They come into the neighborhood in the early hours of the morning, well before the scheduled Streets Department trash pickup. If you happen to be inside your house and hear them outside sorting through your trash, you’re likely to think they are homeless people with shopping carts looking for scrap metal. But take a closer look and you’ll see a uniformed city employee in rubber gloves going through your trash.
There they are, going through that bag of pampers you threw out, or sorting through all that dog mess you cleaned up on the patio. You’ll see them sorting through Kentucky Fried chicken bones, shuffling orange rinds like a deck of cards, opening up bathroom Kleenex swabs, or diving into the remnants of last night’s dinner. They are not looking for archeological treasures, pearls, or even illicit drugs, but for that one plastic soda bottle you may have forgotten to place in your recycle bin.
When that happens--- regardless of the fact that a sloppy passerby may have thrown a plastic bottle into your trash---you are issued a $50 ticket for the infraction.
The City of Philadelphia employs about 47 trash-picking officers whose job it is to inspect your trash on trash day for misplaced recyclable items. Ideally, these trash-picking inspectors are supposed to grant some leeway when they go through bags of trash. The unofficial but rarely followed rule, as I understand it, is that residents are permitted a couple of misplaced recyclable items in the regular trash but when that number exceeds four or five, that’s when the inspector writes a ticket. As I see it, the trash police should be looking for blatant violations, such as large bags of recyclable items posing as trash; they should not be nitpicking or looking for a needle in a haystack. This is what they call Orwellian- micro-management overkill, or a desperate attempt—on the city’s part—to make a fast buck.
It has almost nothing to do with saving the environment.
Last week, while walking around the neighborhood, I ran into a gentleman at the corner of Edgemont and Huntingdon Streets. He was quick to point out a trash inspector going through a neighbor’s bags of trash. I noticed a woman with a bright bleached blonde streak in her hair who looked rather stylish. She was nothing like the shopping cart trash pickers who seem to be able to rip a bag of trash apart with animated gusto. This lady inspected the bags with a great deal of care; opening them and shutting them, feeling the bag’s rough contours, bending down for a closer look, standing up again for a scientific nuanced view. As it was, she wasn’t having much luck because all I saw her do was look and re-look, as if she could not quite believe that she was coming up empty. In many ways she looked like a disappointed treasure hunter. I immediately thought of Janis Joplin singing, "Oh Lord, it just can’t be!"
Then an elderly woman up the street, obviously nervous that an inspector was making the rounds, raced out of her house and, in a sort of heart acceleration panic, went to her trash bags and rechecked them, fearing, obviously, that she had missed a recyclable. When I left the scene ten minutes later, the blonde wave inspector was still trying to find a violation.
I walked further up Edgemont, on the lookout for more trash inspectors but found only homemade signs planted next to sidewalk trees: "This tree is not a toilet. Please curb your dog." "How wonderful is this!" I thought. When you have a tree on the sidewalk, as I do, you find that you are constantly under attack by some dog walkers (who give dogs a bad name) who allow their pets to poop all over your tree plots without cleaning up. This is almost as bad as having a trash inspector fine you $50 for one wayward Coke bottle.
Then an idea occurred to me. In a world of picture perfect recyclers, wouldn’t the trash inspectors go out of business? The blonde wave lady, for instance, what would she do? Well, what about allowing her to ticket for other offenses, like dog walkers who allow their pets—even encourage them--- to poop all over tree plots or the sidewalk?
Why stop there? Why not even extend the inspector’s duties further by giving her the authority to issue tickets to people who litter?
Send her over to Lehigh Avenue where the piles of litter continue to mount to the extent that when a wind comes all the litter blows up into the branches of trees. Then have her snake down to the Belgrade Bridge near Lehigh where many people continue to dump large artifacts or big bags of trash. In Philadelphia, you can litter to your heart’s content, casting Mountain Dew bottles or Arctic Splash containers all over the place, as well as zillions of mounting cigarette butts and candy wrappers, and still never get a ticket or even a disapproving look.
Just last week, for instance, I saw a young professional woman in the late afternoon on Huntingdon Street ball up a large wrapper she was carrying and throw it down a sewer. She actually bent down and stuffed the enormous bag into the sewer in full view of neighbors, as if it doing that was the most natural thing in the world. What was even more curious was that she was a well-dressed woman and that she did this as if she’d been doing it all her life, with no regrets or apparent guilt.
"Who does she think cleans up the sewers?" I wondered. "Did it ever occur to her that if every Philadelphian did that the sewers of Philadelphia would backup and make for a very unpleasant disaster?
So, yes… if only we could move our fine blonde wave recycling inspector to the bridge area on Belgrade Street, or even have her ticket all the abandoned houses in the area that have owners who, while they pay property taxes, allow their properties to rot, much like the house on my Mercer Street block that has been slowly crumbling for years.
These new duties would surely be better than poking for hours for that one renegade plastic Coke bottle.
After all, if Philadelphia wants to be known as the City of tickets, let’s at least do it right.
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