Inside YaFavTrashman’s Meteoric Rise From Mild-Mannered Sanitation Worker to Garbage Superhero
For Terrill Haigler, solving Philadelphia’s trash issues is about so much more than clean streets. Is his eager idealism just what the city needs — or will he get swallowed by the muck?
It’s a glorious Saturday morning in May, and Terrill Haigler, dressed in a gray knit cap, a black work jumpsuit emblazoned with a stylized cartoon sanitation worker, and his signature fashion frames, unloads shovels and rakes and other implements of trash reduction from the back of a U-Haul truck he’s parked on the 2900 block of West Huntington Street in Strawberry Mansion.
He piles work gloves, brooms, grabber tools, bottles of water and yards of trash bags on the sidewalk as his volunteers trickle in, determined to transform this vacant-lot-flanked short-dumping hot spot into something decidedly more appealing.
The 25 or so helpers who’ve turned up this morning to assist Haigler, best known as the charismatic face of @_YaFavTrashman on Instagram, are fifth-graders from the Russell Byers Charter School. Earlier in the week, Haigler talked to their class about his life as Philadelphia’s most beloved sanitation worker and how he became a social media sensation during the pandemic summer for delivering Instagram updates on backed-up trash collection; for fund-raising for better protective equipment for his co-workers; for providing citizens of the city commonsense tips on how to best throw out their garbage; and for rallying people together at a time when we felt completely disconnected. He told the kids about the importance of standing up for what you believe in and trying to make a difference and how no matter what you grow up to be, you need to give it your all. Now, it’s Saturday morning, and the kids are here to learn firsthand about how they, too, can impact a community and the power of collective action.
After helping to fill most of a trash truck with refuse — including a threadbare easy chair, a bag of hardened cement, and many, many half-empty takeout containers — the students are summoned to the back of the U-Haul, where 200 boxes of grocery staples donated by surplus food distributor Sharing Excess are stacked on pallets and waiting to be distributed. Kids and parents go door-to-door drumming up interest in the free groceries, and soon, car after car pulls up beside the truck, tucks a box or more into the trunk, and drives on.
As the distribution slows, Haigler, who turns 32 this month, does what he’s done so often in the past year-plus: He goes live on Instagram. “We have about 50 boxes of groceries left at 29th and Huntingdon,” he practically sings. “If you know anybody who needs some food, who needs a box of groceries this week, send them to 29th and Huntingdon.”
When the students fashion a yard-waste bag and some red tape into a “Free Food” sign and begin holding it aloft for passersby, the scene becomes a full-on spectacle. Cars stop, and drivers pause to chitchat, say what’s up, recommend a street that could use some YaFavTrashman love. A block captain bends Haigler’s ear about this or that Councilperson who’s been ignoring the dumping on her block for years.
It is, by any measure, a huge success: a clean block. Motivated citizens. Kids engaged in good deeds. Neighbors hooting and hollering and back-slapping and hugging. Plus: a bunch of new leads on blocks in this trash-bedeviled city that could use Haigler’s touch.
And it’s all possible because Haigler, YaFavTrashman, is no longer, technically speaking, a trashman. After rising to prominence at the height of 2020’s trash slowdown, Haigler quietly left the sanitation department in February to become a sanitation celebrity with no ties to the government, a booming brand, and big plans to transform Philadelphia. It’s a story that’s captivated the city, but also one with no blueprint, so Haigler is very much figuring it out as he goes.
“I consider myself a forever sanitation worker,” Haigler tells me, adding, “Denzel Washington still talks about when he was a sanitation worker in New York.”
Haigler views addressing trash as fundamental to fixing many other issues that plague the city — and he’s collecting some very powerful people who are eager to fulfill his vision.
So Haigler has continued to advocate for his former co-workers from any platform that will have him. And there have been lots of platforms, from Action News to World News Tonight to Good Morning America to The Kelly Clarkson Show, from a youth leadership seminar in Miami to a sanitation summit in Austin, all the way to the White House, where he was among the July Fourth guests of the Bidens. The charismatic Haigler, who graduated in 2007 as a dance major from Philly’s iconic Creative and Performing Arts high school, is a natural on-camera, and his messages of worker respect, social equity, and “It takes all of us” to fix what’s broken in our city couldn’t be more timely.
His star turn has ignited something entrepreneurial in him but is also part of a higher calling. Haigler views addressing trash as fundamental to reckoning with many of the issues that plague the city, from poverty to incarceration to gun violence, and he’s collecting some very powerful people who are eager to work with him on his vision.
As Ariana Queenan, his manager — yes, he’s got one of those — puts it, the blue-sky vision is for Haigler to become no less than “the Beyoncé of trash.”
But the road to trash superstardom, they’re learning, can get a little messy.
If the idea of a “Beyoncé of trash” sounds preposterous, think back to June of 2020. Lockdown meant that residential trash was increasing exponentially. Summer was heating up, and trash collection was breaking down. Because many of us were stuck at home all day every day, we were getting pretty intimate with the garbage piling up on our curbs. Trash, we learned, is a topic that fascinates — and can infuriate — just about all of us. And a trash crisis in the midst of a global pandemic was a recipe for anarchy.
Then there emerged, as if from on high, a voice of calm. On June 17, 2020, a photo of a pair of kicked-up work boots in front of a garbage truck appeared on the Instagram account of @_YaFavTrashman. Its caption promised an inside look, with a bit of comedy, at what it’s like to work sanitation in the city. A city long plagued by its trash issues was instantly hooked.
The Instagram account began tentatively, proffering brief informational updates, but quickly centered on Terrill (pronounced “Ter-L”) Haigler’s live monologues: stories from the streets, insight into collection delays, and tips on how citizens could help him and his colleagues pick up the trash more efficiently. (Don’t overload bags; break down and tie up your cardboard before putting it on the curb; drill holes in the bottoms of your cans so they don’t fill up with water, etc.)
Haigler, who’d only been on the job for about seven months at the time, knew there were big misconceptions about sanitation workers and decided to start the account after getting harassed on the street by a woman who was angry about the lack of trash pickup. “I want to change the whole narrative,” he tells me. “There’s a stigma, right? We’re not just failed experiments at life. If my son grows up and wants to be a sanitation worker, I don’t want that to be a bad thing.”
In a city with a fraught, often racialized relationship with its trash collectors and their union (Google “1986 garbage strike”), Haigler was a revelation, a relatable face who bridged a decades-wide chasm between sanitation workers and those whose detritus they picked up. Thousands of colorful #SupportSanitation signs drawn by locked-down schoolchildren popped up in windows around the city. On the hottest of trash days, coolers packed with cold water, Gatorade and frozen treats appeared along routes. A love affair blossomed from ground long poisoned by acrimony.
And Haigler was everywhere, advocating for better conditions and pay and fighting for higher-quality PPE than the city was providing. He spun the popularity of his nascent brand (which now has nearly 27,000 followers) into a fund-raiser, selling shirts emblazoned with his cartoon logo and amassing $32,000 for better PPE for sanitation workers. The YaFavTrashman Instagram filled with posts thanking businesses ranging from Vita Coco to Kismet Bagels to GoPuff to Milwaukee Tool for donated supplies and sustenance.
Yet even in the early days, you could see how Haigler’s star was perhaps too bright for a municipal bureaucracy characterized by critics as having a conformist “go-along-to-get-along culture.” And you could see how Haigler, the media darling with the electric smile, may have been rubbing some powerful people the wrong way. Haigler, with several of his former co-workers and their union, described their PPE as grossly inadequate. Haigler talked of masks that seemed to be made of paper or bedsheets, face shields that fogged up in the heat, gloves that didn’t protect against needle punctures. Meanwhile, the party line at the Streets Department, the branch of city government that oversees sanitation, was that it was absolutely providing adequate PPE to its workers.
So while Haigler’s popularity continued to soar, behind the scenes, he says, things became inhospitable. He claims that some days, he wouldn’t get assigned to a truck and would instead be left back at the yard. Following one snowstorm, he says, rather than working a route, he was tasked with shoveling his trash yard’s parking lot. In November, after his mother, Jeanette, died of complications from asthma and cardiac arrest, he applied for leave, which he says was approved. Months later, he says, he learned he was being marked “AWOL,” which can lead to suspensions and be a precursor to termination. (A Streets Department spokesperson says that Haigler requested and was granted four days of funeral leave following the death of his mother in November. The department says that Haigler was given hours and overtime in accordance with regular department protocols.) A veteran co-worker recommended that Haigler resign to take a chance on himself and not wait to get fired. Shortly before he ultimately did, he discovered that the city’s Board of Ethics had opened an investigation seeking bank account information on his PPE fund-raiser and emails about an appearance he made in an October 2020 Biden for President commercial. (The city has rules about how employees can and can’t participate in politics.)
Haigler maintains he’s got nothing to hide but thus far hasn’t cooperated with what he feels is a bully tactic by his former employer. (Ethics violations tend to result in fines, and according to one Philadelphia ethics expert, Haigler’s failure to comply might do little more than hinder his ability to work for the city again. Shane Creamer, executive director of the Board of Ethics, says that a confidentiality rule prevents him from confirming or denying the existence of a complaint or investigation that has not been settled or ruled upon.) “I stood up for myself and said if you’re not formally charging me with anything,” says Haigler, “you’re not getting anything.”
Even before he’d left the department, Haigler had begun organizing community cleanups that he promoted, naturally, on Instagram. In early May, he began to be a bit more cagey when three separate cleanup sites he announced were mysteriously cleaned up right before the date Haigler was set to address them. The Streets Department says earlier this year, it implemented a new initiative to proactively check frequent dumping spots, but insists it never targeted Haigler’s cleanups. Still, Haigler was starting to get the sense that maybe he wasn’t everyone’s favorite trashman.
Terrill and his sister Juanita, 27, were born in North Philadelphia to Jeanette Haigler, a 1985 graduate of William Penn High School and a legal secretary at the Federal Reserve Bank. Haigler’s father, he says, was in and out of the picture when he was a child. So Jeanette, with help from her mother, Betty, was the kids’ primary caregiver at the family’s home near Broad and Girard.
When Terrill was a three-year-old with “a lot of energy,” he and his mother happened past Freedom Theatre at Broad and Master, where a staffer named Tom Page pitched Jeanette on its programming. “He was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got a son. We’ve got a children’s program. You’ll get a break every Saturday for about four or five hours,” Haigler says; his mother was sold at “get a break.”
“That is the start of where my personality comes from, my confidence,” says Haigler. “There was a password where before you came in the building, you had to say, ‘I respect myself,’ and the response was, ‘You’re beautiful.’ So you take me, who’s been saying ‘I respect myself’ from the age of three to 19 — when I get somewhere and I don’t feel respected, I have to address that.”
Haigler gravitated to dance at Freedom, where he studied under Patricia Scott Hobbs, now a choreographer and instructor at Germantown’s Danse4Nia/Phoenix Danse. “Terrill was one of the few male students we had in dance,” she recalls. “But one of the things you find is that once young men decide they want to dance, nothing really deters them. It takes a certain kind of determination as a young male to pursue it.”
Dance, says Haigler, fostered his ability to understand processes, to see how complex systems work together. “Dance is all about transitions. You go from the passé to the plié to the tendu. There’s a system,” he explains. He describes how at auditions, dancers aren’t given a list of steps; they’re simply shown a dance and asked to repeat it. “So if they do a rond de jambe into a pirouette, I have to be able to identify that. If, instead, I do a pirouette into a rond de jambe, they’ll say, ‘That’s backwards, sir, and when we’re teaching you a dance last-minute before the curtain comes up, I don’t trust that you’re going to have it.’”
This could explain why he excelled in math in high school at CAPA, why he explored computer science in a brief stint at Coppin State, and why he’s so adept at piecing together the ways trash connects to literally everything else. But while arts may have shaped the way he processes the world, his ability to connect to people comes from his mother.
“She had no issues talking to anybody — sitting on the bus, she’d just strike up a conversation,” he recalls of the woman he says was his best friend. “And now I find myself walking and talking to everybody, because every time I make a new connection, it reminds me of her.”
After Jeanette died suddenly at 53, Haigler logged on to her Facebook and discovered that she was in almost constant contact with possible family members across the country: “If they had the last name ‘Haigler,’ my mom was reaching out and saying that we were family. Her thing was that you have nothing in life if you don’t have family. When I was a kid, we would always have family members staying in our house, sleeping on the couch, because she never let somebody fend for themselves. She said, ‘You can do it alone, or you can do it together,’ and she always chose together. And I guess that’s why I keep helping on sanitation — because I consider them family.”
As Haigler was considering leaving the sanitation department, he and his friend Ariana Queenan gamed out how YaFavTrashman could make a go of it as a business. Queenan, a Norristown native, met Haigler just before he started with sanitation in 2019. She graduated from Hofstra with a master’s in journalism and runs a boutique communications firm called Write Here Write Now. Queenan reached out to a Hofstra connection, Brandon Jo’el, who, when he’s not helping run Cornell’s speech and debate program, heads a brand strategy consultancy called TruTheory.
Queenan’s biggest question was how YaFavTrashman — having risen to prominence because of COVID — could remain relevant in a post-pandemic world. Jo’el’s answer, says Queenan, was to “shift the entire conversation around sustainability.” Even after COVID, they figured, the city will still have issues with trash and dirt. And how we deal with them will determine whether our communities thrive.
Together, they came up with a series of documents (a mission statement, a media kit, a style guide, a brand language handbook) that distill Haigler’s work to its essence — to ensure the equitable protection of community servants — but that also dream big, reimagining the idea of fellowship in the city.
Jo’el also encouraged the pair to identify what he calls “the pastries,” the things the brand can actually sell: brand ambassadorship, consulting, hosting/emceeing, talks and, increasingly, public relations.
The combination of Haigler’s gift of gab and Queenan’s strategic guidance has resulted in a flurry of opportunities. And the tools they developed with Jo’el are the ones Queenan uses to help Haigler, who’s hardwired to say yes to everything, decide when to actually say no.
For instance: On the early evening of June 14th, Nic Esposito, the city’s outspoken former zero waste and litter director, along with sustainability consultant Samantha Wittchen and journalist Julie Hancher, launched a new organization called Circular Philadelphia aimed at promoting a local economy that produces less waste and trash. A who’s who of environmental advocates gathered at Sunflower Philly on North 5th Street: There was Marianne Kelly of Tiffin, Logan Welde of the Clean Air Council, Eliza Alford of Councilperson Katherine Gilmore Richardson’s office, White Dog’s Judy Wicks. Also there: Haigler, who’s in discussions to join the nascent organization’s board and was the one everybody wanted a selfie with. After the main presentation, Haigler connected with Aubrey Sherretta of a Penn-born start-up called The Rounds that offers zero-waste delivery of grocery staples. On June 21st, Haigler took to Instagram to announce a collaboration with the start-up. These all align: They promote a future with less trash, position Haigler as a thought leader, offer him exposure to other big thinkers, and provide financial opportunity.
Compare this feat of synergy to an earlier attempt at expansion: In the months leading up to the city’s Democratic primary, Haigler added political consulting to his portfolio of paid offerings. He worked directly with Caroline Turner, who ran unsuccessfully for judge, and his cleanups became popular with other candidates eager to burnish their image. One day, Carlos Vega, the challenger to incumbent DA Larry Krasner, showed up unannounced at one of Haigler’s West Philly cleanups and posed for a photo op, which Vega posted to his Instagram.
“I got reamed,” Haigler remembers. “I’m getting phone calls from ward leaders, from other candidates, like, ‘How can you support him?’” It was, he admits, a moment of naivete, the moment he realized he was swimming with sharks.
Ultimately, Haigler was convinced to address the photo: “I felt like a movie star. I had to come out with a statement to explain a picture on Instagram.”
It was a crash course in the tangled world of Philly power and influence. Haigler, who says he voted for Krasner, admits that this foray into politics has convinced him he’d rather have connections to power but not live in that world.
Early in his solo flight, Haigler, in need of a vehicle, started a GoFundMe for a pickup truck. It was the same direct approach he took to raising money for better PPE: Reach out to followers and crowdsource. Since then, everything about the operation has gotten much more sophisticated.
On July 24th, Haigler hosted a fish-fry fund-raiser at Deke’s Roadhouse Bar-B-Que in Germantown to launch Trash 2 Treasure, the nonprofit arm of his growing YaFavTrashman empire. Trash 2 Treasure will run cleanups and perhaps expungement clinics to help returning citizens clear their records (another area of interest) and could handle, say, a foundation Jeanette Haigler dreamed of that would provide opportunities for kids similar to the ones that helped hers.
And at Deke’s, Haigler announced another collaboration, this one with Morgan Berman of tech firm MilkCrate and ShopRite impresario Jeff Brown. They’ve teamed up to launch an app called Glitter that allows sponsors to pay individuals to clean up designated areas on a weekly basis.
Berman says she originally tried to partner with the city, to no avail. “We’re doing this because I couldn’t get the city to work with me on it,” she told the supporters, including a number of sanitation workers, assembled at Deke’s. “I saw Terrill on Instagram and thought, ‘I’m going to find another way,’ and we did.”
(The Streets Department says it didn’t decline to work with Milkcrate, noting that when Berman reached out, she had requested funding to launch the app, which the department couldn’t provide without first bidding the project through the city’s RFP process. According to the department, it told Milkcrate the company could implement the app on its own but would need to secure funding.)
Then there’s Brown, widely considered to be pondering a run for mayor, who is sponsoring Glitter and who also found Haigler through social media. “Terrill was a shopper at the ShopRite on Fox Street,” Brown later tells me. “I’ve been following his philanthropic work, and I reached out to him. The city has a reputation as being dirty, and we were wondering if we can’t use tech and citizen engagement to do better, to democratize the cleaning of Philadelphia.”
Like Haigler, Brown is known for his community-minded work. He’s intentional about employing returning citizens and opening stores in food deserts. He’s been praised by President Obama. And he’s been attacked by the Kenney administration for his opposition to the soda tax, which Brown says drives shoppers from his city stores to the suburbs, threatening, yes, his bottom line, but also the financial security of his employees.
I ask what drew him to Haigler. “I can’t help but notice unutilized talent in this city,” says Brown, “and Terrill is a tremendous talent.”
In Haigler, Brown also likely sees a kindred spirit. Brown understands how something as basic as access to healthy food has ripple effects: better school performance, which can lead to better job prospects, which can reduce poverty. And Haigler sees the same connections with trash. Provide young adults an opportunity to make some money cleaning up trash, and maybe that keeps some of them out of situations that can turn violent, protects them from jail, and slows the school-to-prison pipeline. Give a neighborhood that feels like it’s been forgotten by the city a sense of agency, and maybe that can move the needle on poverty, on turning back gentrification.
Haigler tells me he’s in talks to launch a junk-removal business with Jamisa McIvor-Bennett, the 27-year-old real estate investor and founder of Rosebud’s Investments: “Our goal is to hire the young adults who are probably out here shooting each other. We’re gonna get OSHA-certified and get some money in their pockets.” It’s all connected.
Haigler, Brown, and Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity are teaming up to run a massive expungement clinic that would allow returning citizens to get, say, a steady construction job rather than a gig job with less security. And Haigler wants it all to happen fast: He’s reaching out to Attorney General Josh Shapiro about pardons and plans to have an on-site judge to expedite things.
Brown says he and Haigler actually discussed the possibility of him taking a PR job at his stores in the spring, but Haigler ultimately declined. Brown says it came down to a question of “Would it give him enough freedom to spread his wings? Even in my company, I still think it would be limiting for him.”
And it’s hard to imagine Haigler doing anything other than what he’s doing now. It’s also fair to wonder just how far his shooting star can take him. Whether he’s saying no to enough projects. Whether there’s enough of him to go around.
On June 26th, Haigler called to tell me the big news: He’d just been invited to the White House as a guest of the Bidens. It seemed, in a way, to be a validation of the decision he made in February, a reward for, as he calls it, “betting on himself.”
He told me he wanted to keep it a secret until after the fact, to surprise people with it the next day. And then, on Monday, July 5th, on @_YaFavTrashman, there were photos of Haigler and Queenan on the South Lawn, looking sharp in the iconic red and white “YaFavTrashman” t-shirts that have become ubiquitous in the city. They were among 1,000 people being recognized for tireless work during the pandemic. Haigler mugged with fellow Philly guest Ala Stanford and took up-close snaps of Biden delivering a speech, then visited the MLK monument.
A few days later, he was flown to Austin by a group called Forklift Danceworks to host a screening of its 2012 film Trash Dance, as part of the company’s 20th anniversary season. The film documents a performance wherein sanitation workers and their trash trucks “dance” on an empty airport tarmac. A more perfect teaming of film and host you’re unlikely to find. Haigler’s visit became a mini residency: He participated in a talk with sanitation workers from around the world, then got an insider’s tour of how the Austin Resource Recovery department (they don’t call it sanitation there) works.
“Morale was high. Camaraderie was high,” he notes, describing how each morning, before they begin their shifts, the employees stretch together, readying their bodies for the rigors of the day and connecting with one another. “But the biggest difference was their leadership. Their director, Ken Snipes, is a servant leader. His attitude is, you have to be okay for me to be okay.” Haigler says Austin, under Snipes’s leadership, increased pay and invested in the fleet. He says, notably, that in Austin, they have mechanical arms to tip trash cans — something our city fleet doesn’t use. In Austin, Haigler saw the arms allow the city to deploy more crews, which could then pick up trash more quickly and efficiently. The visit filled him with ideas he’s planning to share in a series of op-eds. And it offered a vision for another role Haigler could play: trash ambassador.
“It’s time for people to stop saying, ‘Oh, the next generation is going to do it; the next generation is going to change the world,’” says Haigler. “It’s time for us to change it for them.”
It’s funny to think that Haigler, just a year and a half ago, had never set foot in a trash yard. He’d job-hopped for much of his career. He was a professional dancer. He worked demolition. He’d taught dance. He was a hospital floor tech. He sought a sanitation job for the steady pay and good pension, but even though his tenure lasted all of 14 months, trash has become not just the thing that defines him, his vital spark, but the challenge for which all his previous steps prepared him.
“Here’s the thing about the trash world,” says Nic Esposito, who’s also been sucked into its morass. “It’s like The Godfather. You try to get out, and they pull you back in. It’s such a stupid, insane problem, how we manage trash on this planet, that I cannot go to my grave with the thought that we can’t figure this out.”
I ask Haigler why he thinks trash has so gripped him. As with so much else, he brings it back to his mother. “One of the last things she said to me was, and I’m going to get this quote on a plaque, ‘With YaFavTrashman, change the world, so your kids don’t have to,’” says Haigler, the father of three young children. “It’s time for people to stop saying, ‘Oh, the next generation is going to do it; the next generation is going to change the world.’ It’s time for us to change it for them.”
It’s the kind of thing that you can’t help but be touched by. Still, Philadelphia’s trash problems are deep, and they’ve thus far been platitude-resistant. Is Haigler the energetic dynamo this city needs, right when we need him? Or is he, as anyone who studies fame in the 21st century might wonder, the man of the moment — next week’s old news?
On the evening of July 13th, not two weeks after his White House visit — on the day President Biden visited Philadelphia to advocate for protecting voting rights — Haigler posted a photo of a trash-strewn block near Kensington and Allegheny. Clearly distraught, he wrote, “These pictures were sent to me by one of my followers. I don’t even know where to begin.”
Later that night, he started a live Instagram and went off for some 10 minutes à la Howard Beale in Network:
“I saw that Joe Biden was in the city today, and it’s just a little disturbing that all these people are posting pictures with him, people in positions of power” — he chokes up — “and the city is still dirty. … What we’re doing right now is not working. It’s not even an if it ain’t broke don’t fix it thing. It is broke, beat down, tired, burned out. We gotta find a systematic way to change. … Maybe somebody should tag Joe Biden on my last post and let him know this is what Philly looked like while you were here. I think all them smiles would go away.”
Looked at one way, the rant revealed a certain greenness. Of course Josh Shapiro (likely running for governor) and Sharif Street and Malcolm Kenyatta (both eyeing Pat Toomey’s Senate seat) are going to mug with the President. Then again, perhaps Haigler’s got just the sort of tunnel vision, a total refusal to bow to politics as expected, that could, you know, once the dust settles, actually change things.
Published as “The Trashman Cometh ” in the September 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.