The City’s Going Through My Trash

Fines for improper recycling are being enforced, but the wrong people are paying

Every once in a while, my landlords slip a note under the doors of all their tenants. Usually it’s a reminder that they’re changing the filters in our air conditioners or testing smoke alarms. They’re good like that. But the latest memo was a warning about trash. Not that it’s piling up or turning our block into a Motel 6 for rats. It was an alert that the Streets Department has found a new revenue stream.

“A single soda can or plastic object in the wrong container will bring forth a $50 fine,” the note read. Attached was a copy of the ticket they received for “non-rcycl mxd w/recycl” and a grainy black-and-white photo of the “evidence.” It looked like a homicide case file from Law & Order. The verdict: a $50 fine, payable to the city of Philadelphia. After 10 days, they’ll slap on another $25 for making them wait (as Septa has taught us, the city is nothing if not on time). [SIGNUP]

We all know this town could use a good scrubbing. There’s so much garbage floating around that the city launched an ad campaign to encourage us to clean up. You’ve probably seen those commercials, the ones with the spoken-word poets rapping about litter while a guy plays stand-up bass in the background. I’m not sure Def Poetry Jams and trash go hand in hand, but kudos for the effort.

The problem is that the Street Department has, in classic Philadelphia fashion, turned a good idea into a way to make a cheap buck at our expense. They’ve dispatched an army of stormtroopers out into the streets to undertake that most essential municipal task — sifting through your trash. If you’re too lazy to separate your empty laundry detergent bottles from the remains of last night’s Chinese take-out, then you deserve a ticket. But say you’re the average person who separates your paper and plastic. You probably set your garbage out the night before. Then someone walks by and chucks their McDonald’s bag in your blue recycling bucket. If the Streets Department gang sees it, that’s a $50 hit you’re taking for someone else’s laziness. No questions asked.

Times are tough enough already for city residents. Aside from the usual challenges of urban life — you know, stuff like not getting mugged, shot, or harassed by the head of the housing authority — we’re getting nickeled and dimed at every turn. Parking ticket rates have gone up. The wage tax hasn’t budged. But the budget won’t balance itself. To make up for a lack of smart fiscal planning, city employees are being paid to root through your refuse in hopes of finding an empty bottle of Tide where it doesn’t belong. Trash day is now payday for the city’s coffers.

Mayor Nutter was quoted in a recent Inquirer story about the DROP retirement program, insisting he’d continue to fight it, despite the outcry from the unions. “I represent another union,” he said. “The citizens of Philadelphia.”

Sticking up for the little guy, Mr. Mayor? That’s a convenient stance to take, especially with an election in sight. But those Streets Department snoops you’ve deployed to pick through my trash suggest otherwise.