The No-Bullshit Guide to a Litter-Free Block

Inside tips and expert strategies for banishing trash from your block for good.

Yuck.

Not on your block.

Philadelphia’s reputation as one of the filthiest cities in the nation is old and well-deserved. City Hall should be doing more to fix the problem. But you know what? So should city residents.

And so we’ve put together the ultimate guide to cleaning up your block, with decades of know-how gleaned from city officials, block captains, civic leaders and longtime residents who have wrestled with litter for years. You won’t find the same old advice here you’ve heard a thousand times before: “Just call 311.” Instead, we’ve uncovered tricks to actually get 311’s attention (let’s just say a little public embarrassment never hurt), score free cleaning supplies from the city, organize a block cleanup that’ll actually be well-attended, and more. It’s the inside scoop on winning the War on Trash.

Scroll on down to read the whole thing, or use the links below to jump to specific tips.

Make Your Block Gleam

Don’t Be a Part of the Problem

Work for Change Citywide

1. How to get a city trash can on your block.

Lots of block captains and civic leaders believe that this is one of the best ways to fight litter. If you live on a residential block, the city’s Streets Department will hook you up with a trash can if you call 215-685-3968. If a live human doesn’t answer the phone, be patient and try again (that applies for every phone number in this guide). If you’re persistent, you’ll get through eventually.

But there’s a couple of catches. One, your street must have a block captain. The city won’t place a can otherwise. Two, the block captain must commit to maintaining the garbage can and keeping it clean. Three, the block captain has to collect bags of trash as they fill, store them somewhere, and set them out on the curb for collection day. That’s right: the city doesn’t do special collections for public trash cans on residential blocks.

Don’t know who your block captain is? Call the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee at 215-685-3981 and ask. We’re told they sometimes name names. Oh, and if you locate your block captain, you should probably be prepared to help him or her out with trash can duties. (Return to top.)

2. Don’t have a block captain? Consider becoming one.

If you don’t have a block captain, you’re not alone. Just one-third of Philadelphia’s 18,000 blocks do.

  • In order to become a block captain, you need to persuade 51 percent of the households on your block to sign a petition. (Only one signature is allowed per home.)
  • Call 215-685-3981 to get a petition sent to your home. When you’re done, you’ll need to send it back to your area’s designated city block officer. Ring that number again to get the correct address.
  • A word of advice: Becoming a block captain is a serious undertaking. Your neighbors may expect you to organize street cleanups (which you should do), connect them to city agencies (which you should also do), and throw block parties (which you don’t have to do, but isn’t that the best part?). (Return to top.)

3. Or, go guerrilla and just plunk a trash can on the sidewalk — at your own risk.

We’re going to be straight with you: This is totally illegal. You can be fined and the trash can may be taken by the city. But we’ve heard from more than one reputable, civic-minded resident that the city doesn’t always enforce this rule, and that if you take care of your trash can, having one on the street really can cut back on litter. To keep it from being stolen, we recommend chaining it to a tree, writing your name on it, or obtaining a bare-bones trash can that few would want to pillage. Be warned, though, that the Streets Department’s position is that, in addition to being against the law, unauthorized trash cans often become an eyesore and a magnet for illegal dumping. (Return to top.)

4. Beautify your block.

Some evidence and lot of common sense suggests that people are less likely to litter on blocks that look well-kept. Neighborhoods with tended yards and clean steps will make people think twice before tossing that carton of Arctic Splash to the curb. So sweep your walk. Plant a tree, courtesy of the city. Or grow some veggies and herbs outside of your house. And try to convince your neighbors to do the same. (Return to top.)

5. Organize a block cleanup.

This is hard work, but for blocks already awash in litter, it’s a critical first step. The good news is that the city will hook you up with free supplies.

  • You can get pro-bono brooms, bags and shovels by calling the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee at 215-685-3968 and requesting them. However, you must be a block captain or part of an organized community group to get the goods.
  • If your cleanup is more ad hoc, ask to rent supplies for free from the city’s Community Life Improvement Program by filling out this form. You simply need to be a resident to partake. On the part of the form that says “organization name,” officials say you can just write in your own name if you aren’t part of a group.
  • If your block is particularly dirty, ask for supplies from both programs.
  • If you tell the Streets Department about your cleanup at least two weeks in advance, city workers will pick up your trash at the end of the day. You can reach the department by calling 215-686-5560 or emailing [email protected]. An insider also told us that Streets sometimes will drop recycling bins when hauling away the trash from official block cleanups.
  • Get as much buy-in from your neighbors as you can. Not only will that make the work easier, it’ll make everyone more aware of litter; and more likely to pick it up when they spot it in the future.
  • Some other tips: Make the cleanup fun for kids by organizing a litter scavenger hunt. Raffle off cheap prizes at the end of the day to keep neighbors there. And consider organizing it on the city’s official Spring Cleanup Day. More people might attend because they feel like they’re part of something bigger. (Return to top.)

6. Use 311 to report graffiti, illegal dumping and overgrown, trash-filled vacant lots.

Here’s the thing with 311: You can’t just call in once and expect the problem to promptly go away. Far from it. Some complaints get prompt attention, others languish. Pro 311 users say it works best when you use the smartphone app (iPhone download, Android download). Why? No waiting for an operator to pick up, and the app stores your complaint tracking number, which is handy.

If you don’t get the response you want from the city, consider calling your district Councilperson. Sometimes city departments move a little quicker when a little political pressure is applied. Another pro tip: Shaming @Philly311 on Twitter can work as well. Also, ask your neighbors to file the same complaints with 311. Basically, the more noise you make, the more people will listen. (Return to top.)

7. How to get the city to clean a vacant lot. Or, do it yourself.

Vacant lots are magnets for litter and full-blown dumping. But a well-tended and nicely greened lot is much less likely to be a black hole for grotesque garbage. One block captain told us that she found 150 bags of dog poop in a nearby vacant lot; when she and her neighbors cleaned it up, the poo bags never returned. There are two ways to tackle a nasty vacant lot: try to get the city to do it, or go DIY. Option A is easier, Option B is much faster.

If you try to get the city’s help:

  • Start with 311. The yard is eligible for cleaning and mowing if it’s trash strewn and the weeds have grown taller than 10 inches.
  • If the lot is privately owned, and most of them are, the city will send out an inspector to see if the lot really does need a clean-out. If it does, the city will cite the property owner and give them two weeks to clean up the lot. If it’s not cleaned out by then, the city will eventually send out a crew to haul away the trash and cut down the weeds.
  • The process typically takes a couple months.

If you go DIY:

  • Be careful. Yes, DIY is faster, but there can be hazards and really nasty stuff in vacant lots. If there are large, heavy objects like busted appliances, you’re probably better off seeking the city’s help.

Once the lot is clean:

  • Do whatever you can to beautify it. Plant a garden. Or if that’s too much, plunk down some planters. And run a mower over the lawn so the weeds don’t get tall enough to swallow litter.
  • If trash continues to pile up, you could purchase a video camera and point it at the lot, waiting for illegal dumpers to fall into your trap. Then turn over your Trash Cam evidence to 311 so the city can cite the perpetrator. (Return to top.)

8. Get help transforming your block’s vacant lot from the Mural Arts Program.

To turn the vacant lot into an actual community asset, you can try enlisting the help of the Mural Arts Program. One block did, and Mural Arts helped out with a mural and with flower planting, landscaping and a community message board. Here’s the application form. (Return to top.)

9. Have a careful talk with the problem neighbor.

Oftentimes, illegal dumpers come from outside your neighborhood and leave trash behind. But occasionally, they’re living right next door. It’s unlikely the city will catch them in the act and write a ticket. The Streets Department only issued 544 citations for illegal dumping last fiscal year in all of Philadelphia. So if you know it’s your neighbor who is illegally dumping or even just setting out their garbage too early in the week, maybe it’s time you confronted them about their trashy habit. Anti-littering activists say these can be tricky, delicate situations. Don’t say “you’re an idiot,” no matter how much you’re thinking it. And don’t try it if you’ve never spoken to your neighbor before. (Return to top.)

10. Make sure to put your own garbage out correctly.

Could you be an unwitting part of the problem? A lot of Philadelphians who would never deliberately litter are pretty cavalier about how they put their garbage out for collection.

  • If you set out your trash in a bag, make sure it’s tied up tightly so that critters can’t get into it. And consider getting a trash can.
  • If you do use a can, put a lid on it.
  • Never, ever set out your recycling in a paper bag (or anything other than a bin, really). It’ll turn into papier-mâché in the rain.
  • Don’t put your garbage outside until after 7 p.m. the day prior to pickup from April to October. In the colder months, it’s a go at 5 p.m. (Return to top.)

11. Get a free Philadelphia recycling bin.

Yes, that’s a thing. But only if you’re willing to suffer for it a little. Each household can pick up three complimentary bins at one of the city’s not-at-all conveniently located “Sanitation Convenience Centers.” Alternatively, bins are sometimes available at neighborhood recreation centers. If you don’t know where the nearest one is, check out this map to find out. Call the rec center first to make sure it has some bins in stock. (Return to top.)

12. Get a garbage disposal for your sink.

This option can be costly, so it isn’t for everyone. But a garbage disposal makes it a lot less likely you’ll be stuck with food scraps that just stink too bad to stay in the house until trash day. Speaking of which … (Return to top.)

13. How to get rid of garbage before collection day.

Sometimes, you just can’t keep a bag of trash inside until garbage day. For those special occasions, or any time you’ve got a lot to get rid of, you can drop off as many as 12 bags (or six cans) of trash at a time at one of the Sanitation Convenience Centers. (Return to top.)

14. Advocate for citywide street cleaning.

It would cost just $3.5 million annually for the city government to clean virtually all of Philadelphia’s streets twice a month. Jim Kenney, the likely next mayor, says he wants to revive citywide street cleaning, which was scrapped years ago largely because drivers didn’t want the hassle of moving their parked cars on street cleaning days. You can help Kenney convince City Council to bring back street cleaning by showing up to Council’s budget hearings next spring to advocate for the sweeps, or start now by calling your Councilperson to let them know you want it. (Return to top.)

15. Convince your neighbors that street-cleaning is worth moving parked cars, or convince Jim Kenney to lead more strongly on litter.

The Democratic mayoral nominee has said that the city may “just clean the streets where people are willing to move their cars” to make way for it. That’s not going to be easy in many parts of town. It will be slightly less difficult to persuade your neighbors, though, if you’ve organized a street cleanup, become a block captain or just helped clean up some litter by next spring. Reach out to area schools or the Philadelphia Parking Authority to see if they’ll let your neighbors park in their lots when the city is cleaning your block. Work with your local civic group to drum up support. And if you live anywhere near Broad Street in South Philly, consider praying.

Also, consider letting Kenney know if you think street-cleaning shouldn’t be up for a neighborhood-by-neighborhood referendum. Trash isn’t nailed down, after all. You can email his campaign at [email protected]. We also hear tell that @JimFKenney is on Twitter. (Return to top.)

Editor’s Note: We gathered these tips and tricks from the minds of Deputy Managing Director Thomas Conway, Keisha McCarty-Skelton and June Cantor of the Streets Department, block captain Emaleigh Doley, Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition president Tim Hitchens, political consultant Larry Ceisler, former “It’s Our Money” reporter Anthony Campisi, our neighbors, and others.