Ya Fav Trashman Wants to Become Ya Fav City Councilman

Terrill Haigler, better known as Ya Fav Trashman, on why he’s running for City Council At-Large and how cleaning up trash in the city could improve everything from gun violence to educational attainment.

yafavtrashman terrill haigler

Terrill Haigler, a.k.a. YaFavTrashman, is running for City Council At-Large. / Photograph by Hibbard Nash

Lawyers, businesspeople, doctors — these are the professions that tend to produce politicians. Trashmen? Not so much. But it does have its advantages: The slogans write themselves. Take out the trash at City Hall! Cleaning up other people’s messes! And so on.

Terrill Haigler, also known as Ya Fav Trashman, the former sanitation worker who has become the colorfully bespectacled face of the city’s pandemic-era trash woes, hasn’t gotten to the stage of dreaming up campaign slogans just yet. But he knows this much: He’s running for City Council At-Large. Haigler announced his candidacy on Saturday, becoming one of the first declared candidates in the race to replace the multiple Councilmembers who are expected to resign their seats and run for mayor in 2023. (Allan Domb, though technically not declared for mayor yet, has already kicked things off with his recent resignation.)

Haigler’s rise to Philly microcelebrity status began during the pandemic, when he posted a series of videos on social media explaining why city sanitation workers were struggling to pick up the trash on time. (Poor management and a lack of personal protective equipment, mostly, plus lots of extra trash resulting from work-from-home life.) Haigler parlayed his visibility and 30,000 Instagram followers into a role as a kind of citywide ombudsman of trash, calling out illegal dumping, giving talks about sanitation policy, and organizing community engagement programs like neighborhood trash cleanups and food banks. The one thing Ya Fav Trashman isn’t anymore, strictly speaking, is a trashman. He left that job in February 2021 after just over a year.

Haigler spoke to Philly Mag about why he’s the right fit to join City Council and his belief that the solution to many of the city’s problems starts in the same place: with cleaning up the trash.

Even before you announced your candidacy, you were around politics: You’ve done cleanups with elected officials, you were in a Biden-Harris ad, you interviewed State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta on your podcast. Tell me how you arrived at the decision to run — was it always leading to this moment?

In the beginning, no. It was just that I knew in order to move Philadelphia forward, elected officials had to be involved. They had to be engaged. So I wanted to talk to them, to see how I could be of help. And then the more I talked to them, I was like, maybe this is something I should do. Maybe there’s no one who’s an elected official that has the perspective that I have, the background that I have. But there’s a lot of people like me who need a voice at the table as well.

You’ve done a lot of work in the community already, but is running for office in some ways an admission or a realization that you think there’s a ceiling on the impact you can have outside of politics?

No, not a ceiling at all. For me, it’s just another lane. There’s the grassroots community lane, there’s the government lane — there’s a lot of different lanes. I think for me, in the grassroots community lane, there’s not a ceiling, but there are some limitations. Funding and resources. And so if I shift over to the government and city official lane, I’m able to use resources for people like me. It’s an opportunity to be at the table and say, Hey, here’s a group of people that, for the last 10 years, no one’s talked about. And here we are — now we’re at the table. Now we can really start having a blended perspective on what Philadelphia looks like in the future.

Do you see any current Councilpeople whom you might want to emulate? Maybe “emulate” is too strong of a word, but someone whose way of governing is similar to how you might go about it.

I think you take something from everybody, and you make a good gumbo pot of good decisions. There’s not one person that I want to try to be like or emulate. We should just take the best from every perspective, put it together and figure out how it best works with Philadelphia’s future.

You’ve talked before about a kind of unifying theory of trash. There are long-term structural factors that affect trash distribution — if you look at the city’s litter index, the dirtiest places in Philadelphia tend to be the poorest and Blackest —

But also now the most dangerous.

Right. Your idea is that by cleaning up trash in neighborhoods, we can actually improve upon some of the systemic factors, like poverty, violence and disinvestment, that are contributing to unequal distributions of trash in the first place. Tell me a little more about how you came to view trash as so critically important.

Just on the route, in the community, doing the work, really analyzing what cause and effect trash has on communities and environments. Think about trash at a school, right? Kids are walking through trash to get to school. Think about the mindset they have when they get into school, and then think about the school that has asbestos, and brown water, and no working ACs, and the food is nasty. That isn’t a conducive environment for our kids to learn.

For me, trash is the starting point. If we can eliminate the trash issue, we then can focus on food insecurity, homelessness, workforce development, taxes, jobs, education — like, now we’re hitting all the things that are plaguing our city.  So if we remove the filth and start pulling back the layers, we can take a community that’s riddled with trash and litter, clean it up, get some trees on that block. What happens? People might start buying properties on that block, right? So now the property value on that block is going up. So the person that’s been living on this block for 10 years starts to see his house value go up. What does that mean? He then inherits equity in his home, right? Maybe he takes out a home equity loan and then he buys a business. So now we’re shifting lives by cleaning the trash and inviting businesses to come into the community.

There was an interesting study about the impact of picking up trash on violence —

Eugenia South. UPenn. She cleaned up 500 lots, and gun violence reduced by 30 percent around the lots. I mean, it makes sense. We already have proven statistics around what the beautification of a community can do for that community emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually. So why not go with that? Why go against the grain?

Do you envision running what’s essentially a single-issue campaign around trash? Or do you have policy ideas about all those downstream impacts you just mentioned?

I do have some policy ideas about other things. But I think the starting point for me is trash; it’s a quality of life issue. Quality of life issues are big for me as a former sanitation worker, and now a community organizer and activist around the beautification of Philadelphia. So again, my ideology is that we start with the trash, and then that trickle-down effect can lead to policy around education, can lead to policy around jobs, can lead to policy around homelessness, can lead to policy around food.

Let’s talk a little bit about the specifics that you have in mind. The Streets Department obviously wants to pick up the trash, too, even if they don’t have great track record. How do we actually pick up the trash aside from just saying, “Let’s pick up the trash”?

See, as a Councilperson, you have no control over the Streets Department. Now, you can work with them, but I have no say-so. The say-so comes from the Mayor.

Part of me did wonder why you weren’t considering a bid to run the Streets Department … 

For me, the Streets Department is going to take a special person that understands a lot more than I do right now. I’ve only been in this space for two years.  Someone like Nick Esposito has 10 years in the waste and recycling industry. He was the zero-waste czar. I’m not someone who’s just like, “Oh yes, throw me into this position.” Nah, that’s never going to be me. But what I will do is acknowledge the fact that there are other people who are better, have more ideas and are experts, and I would like to push them into that position. So if it was up to me, I would have Nick be the streets commissioner. But on Council, I can talk to the Mayor, and I can work with Councilmembers on making it easy for the Streets Department to do their job.

So what does that look like?

Maybe hiring more sanitation workers. Right now there’s only like 1,200 or 1,300 sanitation workers. What would it look like if  we had 3,000 sanitation workers? And I know that money has to come from somewhere. That’s another thing — I’m raw. I am sushi in this space. Like, I don’t know how the money works, I’m learning how government works. I’ve been researching and studying and reading books and getting acclimated and asking questions, but I’m raw. So you can’t just find money from somewhere. I know it has to come from maybe the state, working with State Reps and bringing it back from Harrisburg and D.C. So I know there’s a process. I’m not naive to the process. But the things we could do right now are hire more sanitation workers, put brooms and dustpans and trash cans on wheels in their hands, and actually create a task-force where people are cleaning residential blocks from storm drain to storm drain. Let’s add trash cans. Let’s add cameras. Let’s really get to the bottom of how we can make the turnaround time of an illegal dump go from like 90 days to 48 hours.

There’s some technology out there that Philadelphia needs yesterday. There’s technology we could put on the trucks that speaks to an AI system and, if the truck breaks down — if it detours, if for whatever reason it doesn’t come — the system can actually send a text message to everyone on the route, saying, “Hey, there’s a delay, bring your trash in.” Or “Hey, there’s a delay, but keep it outside, we’re still coming.” That type of communication will make a smoother transition and sanitation pickup. There’s [mechanical bin] tippers. I get a lot of flack when I say that standardizing the trash can or adding tippers [to trash trucks] reduces jobs. It doesn’t reduce jobs, it improves efficiency. It’s three people on a truck, and if we take one person from every truck, we can create so many more crews of two with tippers. Our attendance rate is 60 percent. Forty percent of the workforce is hurt at any given time. With those tippers, you’re saving their bodies, you’re saving their backs.

You’re running as a Democrat. Where do you fall on the ideological spectrum? Are you a progressive, or more of a centrist? I’m curious how you think of yourself.

As Terrill. I don’t do labels. Why do labels? Someone puts a label on themselves, they create an optic, they create a perspective, they create a box. I’ve never been in a box my whole life.

Okay, so let’s not label you, but can you give me some data points? Are there elected officials in the city you find yourself agreeing with? The Allan Domb solution to fixing business issues in the city is different from, say, the Helen Gym one.

You’re gonna hate this answer, too, but it’s Terrill. I don’t ever compare myself. Now, do I admire people? Yes. Do I admire people’s strategy? Do I admire people’s thought process? Do admire people’s ideology? Yes. But my whole entire life, I’ve been making a gumbo pot of good ideas. I take something from you, I take something from you. I take something from you, I take something from me. And I figure out how can I mesh this all together and make an amazing idea that’s going to work in every part of the city, in every part of my life.

So do you think you have an ideology? And if so, what is it?

I don’t know if I have an ideology. I know that the beautification of Philadelphia, as a priority, will lead to Philadelphia’s best version. Cleaning Philadelphia has to be a priority, because it will then affect Philadelphia as a whole. 2026 is going to be our biggest year — you’ve got Philly250, the FIFA World Cup. We can’t allow people to come to our city, get off a plane, come down Island Avenue and see trash and tires. That’s never going to be the standard anymore. We gotta get rid of that as a norm.

And then, you know, I want the opportunity to really bring to the table the perspective of the everyday person. Just two years ago, I was throwing trash in the back of a truck, walking 12 miles a day dealing with the pandemic, making $30,000 a year. I’ve built a brand. And I’m now doing different things, but I’m not too far removed. I remember what it felt like, in the middle of the pandemic, to have to decide whether I buy groceries, or I pay my light bill. Or  — not and. I still know what that feels like. And there’s a lot of Philadelphians that are experiencing that right now. Are there a lot of Philadelphians that are represented like that at the table?

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.