I took this picture a few weeks ago. It was trash and recycling day and right at the end of the flowering-tree season. I was pretty taken with the combination of this delicate pink snow mixed in with the filthy street trash. It was all swirling around in the wind, mixing together. A perfect metaphor for Philadelphia (and reminiscent of the plastic bag scene from American Beauty).
Where does all this trash come from? In part, it's cultural. There's just a lot of littering here. There's the blatant kind, where a person stops at a light, opens their car door, and kicks out several bags of fast-food trash (I've witnessed this). There are the subtle, and for some reason acceptable, cigarette butts. But there's also the more sinister--tossing bags of trash over a fence into an empty lot, where the bags decompose in the sun and release all of their contents. Knocking over a street trash can. Tearing open bags on trash day to pull out something useful, leaving the rest to blow in the wind. And of course, there's the everyday--dropping the used cup, the candy-bar wrapper, the cheesesteak paper.
We also have a large population of stray cats, squirrels, rats, and raccoons, all looking for an easy meal. And don't get me started on the dog poop.
But there's another reason for the vast amounts of trash on our streets, and it's more institutional. Our recycling goes out in blue bins. These bins have no lids:
From Grid Magazine: http://tinyurl.com/no8j5ju
Now imagine what happens when those bins go out on a windy evening. Those aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and newspapers go flying. They have all night to get out, helped by the army of can collectors, junk recyclers, and others who rummage through looking for treasure.
The next morning it gets worse, as the city trash collectors roll through the neighborhoods. They're under pressure to cover a large area in a single workday, and they have to move the trash and recycling from the curb to the truck, over a line of parked cars. The fastest and easiest way to do this, apparently, is to throw the bags over the cars and into the truck. Sometimes one misses and hits the ground, bursting open. Sometimes people don't tie their bags well, and they open up mid-flight. The result is lots of trash blowing around, with no one cleaning it up.
The man in the first photo had just come outside to clean up the front walk. After a few swipes of his broom, though, he gave up in disgust and went back inside. Who can blame him, when it feels so useless?
In my neighborhood, there are signs up informing us of when street cleaning will take place. The signs warn us to move our cars on those days. Unfortunately, the street cleaning machines haven't been here in years. The reason? A combination of budget cuts, plus neighbors complaining to our city councilperson about the lack of parking spots on Wednesdays.
My next-door neighbor is a lifetime resident of the neighborhood. She says that when she was a kid, people used to open fire hydrants at the end of the block, and everyone would come out and scrub down the sidewalk and gutter in front of their houses. I'm not asking for sterile here, but can we all agree to pick up the trash in front of our houses? It would really help a lot.