Nicetown: Community Involvement is Key to Accomplishing Zero Waste and Litter

Philadelphia isn’t disparagingly called Filthadelphia for no reason: Cans, bottles, bags, take-out boxes and other types of trash are ubiquitous on the streets of Philly.

But following on Mayor Jim Kenny’s executive order in 2016 creating the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, the city is beginning to discover some ways Philadelphia might eventually kick that nickname for good.

The first step was to assess the problem, conducting a survey of every block and rating them on a scale of one to four, with one being cleanest and four requiring a large cleanup effort.

“Part of the reason the city was so excited to do the index, is so they can see what parts of the city need the most help and concentrate resources,” said Michelle Feldman, director of Keeping Philadelphia Beautiful. “Letting data drive specific interventions.”


Kids from the community took time out of their Saturday to help clean the Nicetown park.


The map is a great first step toward making the city a cleaner place. It enables everyone to see what parts of their neighborhoods need the most help.

The director of the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, Nic Esposito, says that community involvement (or lack thereof) has a lot to do with why some areas have less litter than others. There appears to be a correlation between civic engagement and the lack of trash, he said. Those neighborhoods with block campaigns “tend to have the cleanest blocks,” Esposito said.

He also credits strong community organizations, like community development corporations, and the presence of parks and recreation centers as big factors that keep certain neighborhoods cleaner than others.

A neighborhood like Nicetown manages to keep their neighborhood litter scores around 2-2.5 with the help of a strong CDC, for example.

Benayah Benyehudah, member of the Nicetown neighborhood advisory subcommittee, helps clean Nicetown Park during the 11th annual Philly Spring Cleanup.

“They are up against a lot but are doing some really smart things,” Esposito said.

Events like the Annual Spring Cleanup mobilize volunteers to clean up their their neighborhoods, which has also been a big help. Community organizations help immensely, he said, but in the end it comes down to individuals to do their part.

According to Esposito there will be changes that residents will have to adjust to.

“Composting will be a big change, increasing your recycling,” Esposito said, “We are really trying to get to a reuse culture.”

Replacing plastic bags with reusable bags, plastic water bottles with reusable water bottles, and things of that nature will become part of the culture in Philly.

Other short-term goals include things like imposing higher fines for litter and poor trash containment and launching campaigns to educate people on proper disposal of their waste.

Messy and disorganized trash situations like this must be a thing of the past if the city is to achieve zero waste and litter.

Long-term goals are things like reintroducing street sweeping and creating an environmental crimes unit within the Philadelphia Police.

Right now, most of the city’s non-recyclable waste goes to waste-to-energy incinerators or landfills.

San Francisco set a goal to be waste free by 2020 back in 2003. They have since lowered waste by 80 percent by creating economic incentives for recycling, introducing a three-bin system for compost, as opposed to Philly’s two bin system, and educating its citizens with door-to-door campaigns.

-Text, Photos & Video by Dan Leer

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