Frustrations are piling up in Philadelphia as new data proves what most residents already know: trash pickup is drastically behind schedule in the Commonwealth’s most populated city.

It’s only gotten worse since March 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic truly tested Philadelphia’s collection services, and a new report from the Office of the City Controller indicates the city failed.

“Though many Philadelphians have expressed frustration with trash collection for years, the pandemic brought more attention to this issue than ever before,” said City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart. 

The analysis looks at collection service trends going back to 2009. It also looks at more detailed information starting in 2017.

One decade ago, the city of brotherly love had essentially no issues with taking out the trash. Before 2014, collection services were on-time about 94 percent of the time across the city.

But Philadelphia’s collection system began to struggle in the middle of the last decade. The city controller attributed this problem to “a compactor shortage caused by the Great Recession.”

On-time pickup began to waver. For six years, Philadelphians experienced on-time rates averaging 82 percent. 

The Streets Department finally fully addressed its compactor shortage in 2019. But before the system could bounce back, Covid-19 hit, and with it a steep drop-off in municipal services from the city.

“Our analysis confirmed what Philadelphians have experienced firsthand, that the pandemic had a severe impact on trash collection citywide, but that was not felt equally across neighborhoods,” said Rhynhart. “While the pandemic’s impact was significant, we found that the city was having challenges with on-time trash collection in the years leading up to the pandemic as well.”

At the same time, Philadelphia residents have been putting out record amounts of trash for collection. More people are working from home, ordering out, and using delivery services.

For ten years, the city averaged slightly more than 513,000 tons annually. In the wake of the pandemic, the total skyrocketed to over 617,000 tons.

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To top it off, sanitation workers are not immune to Covid-19. Mayor Jim Kenney said over the summer many trash collectors have been unable to work.

“We’ve had as many as 400 people call in sick, that puts more pressure and work on the other people who show up for work, so we had to hire more folks,” explained Kenney in August.

The worker shortage caused a rift between Kenney and the controller’s office. Rhynhart released a report in May criticizing the mayor’s office for not filling job positions.

The result has been an already-struggling trash collection service in free fall. Over the past year, it’s been a coin flip for Philadelphians to have their trash picked up on time.

The impact hasn’t been distributed equally. Some sections of the city have been hit especially hard. The controller’s report breaks down the city by district.

Districts 6A and 6B, in Far Northeast Philadelphia, have been fairly on par with the city’s trends for the last five years. 

In the Lower Northeast is District 6L, which has put out far more waste and seen a significant drop-off in on-time pickups since the pandemic hit. Kensington and the Riverwards have been similarly impacted.

Meantime, Center City has not seen the same decline in service over the pandemic. Its adjacent trash collection districts are all experiencing on-time rates over 70 percent. This is a decline in service, but not the implosion other areas are seeing.

South Philadelphia is perhaps the biggest mystery. Its on-time collection rate is below half — but it’s per-household output is also almost half as much as much of the rest of the city.

“There isn’t a good reason in my opinion as to why they would be different in different neighborhoods,” Rhynhart told 6abc.

With the clear and persistent problem trash collection has been for the city, officials have been forced to respond.

Mayor Jim Kenney announced in August the city would be hiring 70 more sanitation workers. But there’s no word on how much of an impact this has made, if at all, or its cost to taxpayers. The recent report from the city controller made no indication of recent improvements.

Rick Rickman is a reporter for Broad + Liberty. @RRickman20

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