On a recent rainy Thursday, Kelly O’Day, a retired environmental engineer and Mount Airy resident, drove around the Logan Triangle looking for different kinds of trash. The Triangle, 35 vacant acres in North Philadelphia, is widely known as a hot spot for illegal dumping. O’Day is part of City Councilwoman Cindy Bass’ Trash Task Force, and has been collecting and documenting data on such dumping for the last six years.
“This is construction debris,” he said, pointing to pieces of wood and black plastic trash bags. “I’m going to show you at least a dozen places where they dump, and the majority of this is construction debris. We’re also going to see tires, there’s a lot of tires, and the third category is residential waste.”
O’Day drove around the Triangle, located between Sixth and 11th streets, Roosevelt Boulevard and West Loudon Street. He stopped on almost every block, indicating piles of tires here and there, what looked like entire apartments on the side of one street — mattresses, shelf units, books, toys, lamps, sofas, toilets — as well as wood, parts of cars, shopping carts, plastic bottles and plastic bags of all sizes.
Pounds of trash sat in the middle of Warnock Street, blocking passage.
“Now this gives you an idea of how bold they are,” O’Day said. “This [spot] is a perfect candidate for a [surveillance] camera, because if you can get the license number, you can do something.”
Eric Brice, of the Logan Civic Association, said local residents have been complaining about illegal dumping in the Triangle for years, but measures taken by the city haven’t been effective. So much so that in April Metro reported that a city contractor dumped a load of trash right in front of Councilwoman Bass as she was surveying the area with the Trash Task Force.
The Logan neighborhood has a long history of bad ideas and bad luck. According to water historian Adam Levine, the area used to be a deep valley formed by Wingohocking Creek, which was diverted into a large sewer in the early 20th century. A residential neighborhood was built over coal-ash fill, which compacted and washed away over the years, causing the houses to sink. After two big gas explosions, in 1959 and 1986, nearly 1,000 homes had to be demolished, and the city had to relocate residents. According to historian Ken Finkel’s Philly History blog, some areas of the neighborhood tested extremely high for lead in 2000.
But what makes the Logan Triangle a magnet for illegal dumping today is its accessibility, its size, and the lack of controls there. Brice said most trucks arrive at night via Roosevelt Boulevard. They get in, dump their loads, back up, and speed away without anyone noticing. There are no surveillance cameras in the area, no neighbors monitoring what’s going on, and no “No Dumping” signs. And although there are some concrete barriers to keep trucks out, dumpers find their way around them. Neighbors have organized multiple cleanups during recent years, but the trash always comes back in a couple days, Brice said.
“The city says, `We’re going to put a [No Dumping] sign,’” Brice said. “You can put all the signs you want, people are still going to come here in the middle of the night and dump.”
O’Day has been following very closely the city’s plan to reduce illegal dumping, eliminate litter, and divert waste from landfills and incinerators 90 percent by 2035. Six years ago, he decided to spend his retirement years trying to reduce the amount of trash on the city’s streets, using the tools he learned as an environmental engineer. He did that after realizing that all the progress on water quality he thought he had made during a 40-year career as a wastewater expert was being reversed by plastic pollution coming from the streets to the watershed.
Until recently, O’Day was very content with the city’s action plan and the work done by the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, the group of city departments formed by Mayor Jim Kenney in 2016 to oversee the plan. O’Day applauded the release of the Litter Index, a new data-mapping tool that shows where the heaviest concentrations of litter and illegal dumping are in the city, and new bills signed by Kenney to curb illegal dumping by increasing penalties for dumpers and expanding rewards for tips.
But his optimism has been fading since the last city budget round — he didn’t see extra resources allocated to the plan.
“And without the resources, I’m not convinced that much is going to get done,” O’Day said.
Nic Esposito, the cabinet’s director, said the city has allocated resources to the Philadelphia Streets Department budget to pick up illegal dumping on par with previous years, even though there was a 39 percent decrease in the amount to pick up. Esposito has also argued that the plan uses existing resources in a better way by coordinating, for the first time, multiple city agencies working on cleaning up or reducing trash.
O’Day is not convinced: The Streets Department has only one illegal-dumping crew for the whole city, and current trash-control efforts are not working, he said.
According to the city, successful criminal prosecutions of illegal dumping doubled from 2016 to 2017, increasing to 9 from 4. “That may not seem like a large number, but this is different from just writing tickets. This is successful criminal prosecution in a court of law,” Esposito explained.
“We need more resources just even to pick up the illegal dumping,” O’Day said. “And then we need additional resources for enforcement, to find these dumpers, and [to] do something about it.”
In May, O’Day decided to study the Logan Triangle to come up with a solution. “I said, alright, I’m going to commit to this area, and I’m going to look at it as a trash detective.”
He visited, took pictures of the trash, classified it by type, and followed clues to determine how it got there and who had dumped it. At the same time, he reviewed the area’s service requests through Philly311 — the mechanism set for residents to both alert the city of dumping spots and ask for a cleanup. The data didn’t match: From Jan. 1 to April 24, there were 13 dumping-service requests, while dozens of tires, construction debris, and household trash piles went unreported.
“I suspect that many residents have just given up hope that anything will be done to stem the Logan Triangle dumping tide,” O’Day wrote on an email addressed to city officials, attaching his report.
According to O’Day, waiting for residents to complain doesn’t work in areas like the Logan Triangle. What it really needs, he said, is more control, cameras, police presence, and daily trash pickups.
Esposito said the city is not just sitting and waiting. Through the Litter Index, he said, city staff generated almost 900 Philly311 tickets. It’s also conducting a pilot neighborhood control plan in Southwest Philadelphia, where after establishing that illegal auto yards and abandoned vehicles were a big issue, 300 abandoned cars were towed by the Philadelphia Police Department, and the Department of Licenses and Inspections took action against six auto salvage yards.
“This was not us waiting for neighbors to complain, but actually being proactive to address these issues before the neighbors could,” Esposito said.
Two weeks after sending his report, O’Day submitted to city officials a complete action plan for reducing illegal dumping in the Logan Triangle. The plan recommends installing four surveillance cameras in specific spots, illegal-dumping signs in the whole area, adding or realigning the concrete barriers to block the passage effectively, encouraging the community to report illegal dumping, and engaging block captains and Streets & Walkways Education and Enforcement Program (SWEEP) officers in the process.
Esposito said much of what O’Day is proposing in doable and not new: Block captains are being recruited, and cleaning and enforcement is being targeted to areas of the city the Litter Index shows as priorities. The Logan Triangle is in the Top Ten.
“This is the kind of work we plan to bring to this neighborhood through this process,” Esposito said. “And we need people like Mr. O'Day to be a part of this plan. He has used our litter index and 311 data in very effective ways and is passionate about this issue.”
But Esposito said the work should be collaborative to be successful. “The way Mr. O’Day has approached this thus far is that he did his legwork, came up with his plan, and is asking us to implement it. Our approach to Neighborhood Litter Planning seeks to bring in many stakeholders from all over the neighborhood, discuss and hear their needs, and then work collectively with many stakeholders on finding those solutions.”
Logan Civic Association’s Brice, who was not familiar with O’Day or his plan, welcomed it anyway. “Whatever works to solve the problem, it doesn't matter who did it or whatever. There are a lot of good ideas and solutions, and we’ve got be open to all creative thinking,” he said.
But Brice added that the real solution will come when the city gets the community involved and offers some kind of incentives or rewards to monitor and report dumping.
“We need a sustainable ongoing program — not a one-time solution — to monitor illegal dumping, and catch and prosecute illegal dumpers,” he said.