They Call It Filthadelphia: How “Cash for Trash” Recycling Programs Affect the Lower Class

By Juli Matlack

Philadelphia is notorious for being dirty. The nickname “Filthadelphia” was born based on its overwhelming amount of trash and litter throughout the city. In the 1980s, Philadelphia began work to encourage recycling programs and mandate residential recycling. Incentives were developed with the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants in mind: the lower class and the homeless. “Cash for Trash” programs that paid people who collected various recyclable materials voluntarily provided these people with an opportunity for wages, and it provided the city with cheap labor. Reliance on these programs comes with risks, including health risks of handling potentially dangerous materials as well as the risk of losing the opportunity for economic stability after professional programs are adopted to replace them. The incentives developed for mandated recycling programs disproportionately affect the members of the lower class who likely cannot afford the fines for improper material disposal, but also cannot afford to have their trash properly disposed of. The incentives for voluntary recycling programs, like Cash for Trash and other buy-back programs, are too good for the homeless or lower class to reject, forcing them into facing the aforementioned health and economic risks.