Below is a video essay detailing the creation and flaws of Philadelphia’s mandated recycling program that was implemented in 1987. The video describes what went wrong during implementation and how the lower-class residents and the city streets department developed a mutual dependence on each other.
Below is the recording of a phone interview with my friend Katie Tinklepaugh. We discussed her experience of living in Philadelphia, participating in the city’s curbside trash and recycling pickup, and seeing trash pickers in the streets.
Here is the transcript for the interview:
J- My name is Juli Matlack, I’m doing a research project on Philadelphia’s Cash for Trash programs in the 1980s and their mandated recycling program. The following interview was conducted on April 13, 2020.
K- My name is Katie Tinklepaugh. I’m a former resident from Philadelphia. I lived in Philly in 2019 for around six-to-seven months, and during that time we participated in the curbside trash pickup.
J- So, what was your experience with trash disposal?
K- My experience was that in the area that I lived, which is right by 2 fast-food joints, it was pretty messy. There was a lot of trash everywhere, but the city itself was very adamant about having papers that explained what exactly belonged in recycling and how to recycle those items.
J- Okay, so for your home, did you have curbside trash pickup and recycling pickup or did you have to take it somewhere?
K- It was curbside pickup but, you know, there was always the homeless walking around going through stuff as well.
J- Okay, so, how often was your pick up for your recycling?
K- I believe it was every other week.
J- Okay, and the people who picked it up, did you ever see them or talk to them at all?
J- And you mentioned rules for what goes into recycling, do you remember any of them?
K- It was just kind of like a really, uh, you could show it to your kids and they would kind of understand where it was like, you know, boxes and things that aren’t perishable are good, whereas pizza boxes weren’t and it had different sections for different things like glass, plastic, aluminum foil even, it was the most informative pamphlet i’ve ever seen on recycling.
J- And how did they enforce that with you? Like did they, did the people who picked up your trash, did they do anything to see what was in it, or did they just take it?
K- They would enforce it whereas the recycling wasn’t allowed to go into trash bags, so if there was something that wasn’t supposed to be in there they would pretty much see it or something. I don’t know if they would record that for their own data or whatever but, we always recycled the right way.
J- Were there ever any consequences for you, do you know of any consequences that would come if you broke one of their rules for the trash and recycling pickup? Like if you put it out early or you put recycling in the trash instead of the recycling. Do you know if there were any consequences to that at all?
K- Like I said, I think it really will depend on who is really going through the trash. I’m not sure if they actually have a system where, you know, if they see something while they’re dumping it out, they’ll write down the address that they were at or if it goes off of maybe the police will sometimes make rounds and see what people are throwing away. I’m pretty sure that the only consequence would be a fine, but as I said I was very adamant on recycling everything.
J- And you mentioned there being– you said homeless people walking around and going through trash. Did you ever see them going through your trash?
K- I’m pretty sure I’ve walked up on them a few times, but they get pretty skittish when you look like you’re about to open your front door, so they would run away like they were thinking they were doing something wrong when in reality it was just trash, they could have taken it.
J- So you never interacted with them personally, like you never spoke to them or anything?
K- A few times when I was walking the streets. Not really like in front of my house though.
J- So can you describe the people a little bit for me? Like what kind of people were they, what did they look like and if you talked to them what did they talk to you about?
K- Off the top of my head all I can really think of is an older man. He was actually white, he had a beard, and he was going through some– I don’t know if it was recycling or trash, I didn’t really ask what he was looking for. But he made a joke about trash picking, I don’t remember what it was. He seemed like a nice guy.
J- For him, or for anybody else that you saw, did you ever see what they were picking out? Did you ever notice if they were taking boxes or cans or anything like that? Or did you ever see them pushing around like in bags and carts or anything?
K- No bags I’ve seen really, mostly just like- well no that’s a lieI did see bag fishing. I saw an older woman who was going through some bags on the corner that were clothes. I don’t know if she knew the person that put them out or what but she was tearing through that thing. Other than that, no I can’t think of anything specific.
J- Are you aware of the existence of cash for trash programs and what they are?
K- No I actually was not until you started doing this project.
J- Okay, so I take it then that you don’t know anybody who participated in it or anything?
J- Now that you know about it and you know that you can take recyclable materials to a recycling center and get money for it, what do you think about that program? Like what do you think are the benefits of it?
K- I think it’s extremely beneficial because like I said I’ve encountered a few people who, you know, seemed a little down on their luck and could have used a couple dollars to get into a homeless shelter because the free ones get full every night, and you know that couple of dollars that they could get from somebody’s trash is really beneficial when it comes to sleeping on the cold streets or getting a bed for the night.
J- And do you think that there are any negative effects of that type of program?
K- Well I mean, there is always the possibility that people are going to be a little careless when they are going through the trash and it’ll end up in the streets or whatever but as long as that’s, like, enforced in some way where it’s like you can go through the trash but you can’t throw it all over the place to do it, then no I can’t think of any other negative ways that that could impact the city.
J- Back to the people that you saw picking through trash, did you ever see them using any kind of protective equipment,did they have any gloves or those grabbing sticks or anything like that, anything of that sort?
K- I do think that some of them were wearing gloves and when you said grabbing sticks i actually do remember somebody, but I’m not sure if they were collecting the trash or just, you know doing their civil duty of picking some up on their walk, you know what I mean?
J- And so the people who were employed with the city who picked up your trash and recycling, do you remember any type of protective equipment that those types of people had?
K- I honestly do not, I can’t even think if they wore gloves. I definitely saw them out there a few times and definitely didn’t see them wearing any kind of face protection at all.
J- What did their clothing look like? Did they have bright clothing that you could see in the dark or anything?
K- Yeah they had like a basic construction worker’s clothing. I’m pretty sure I saw some of them in overalls sometimes.
J- And so if you looked at one of the city trash picker-uppers and the noncity employed trash pickers, if you put them side by side do you think that you’d be able to tell which one was employed by the city based on their equipment and what they were wearing, or even their demographic?
K- I think so because, mainly just because in my experience people who are picking through the trash don’t want to be noticed or bother anybody. They just want to get what they need and go, so they’ll usually be in darker clothing so they don’t really stand out whereas the people who pick up the trash, obviously they need to be in their hazardous clothes because they have cars and everything else going on around them.
J- Do you remember what time of day it was when you saw the trash pickers? Do you remember if it was early morning or late at night or just any time of day?
K- It was always late at night.
J- It was always late at night that you saw the trash pickers going through the trash?
J- How did you feel when you saw the people picking through the trash?
K- Honestly, I felt bad that they have to be doing that. I felt bad that they feel like they need to hide and run and, like it’s not a big deal that they’re just picking through trash. People are throwing it out anyway. If they can make a few dollars off of it, why not let them?
J- Were you aware of anything that the city law enforcement had against trash picking? Do you know if there were any rules saying that you couldn’t do it or if there were any fees associated with it?
K- Not with the picking specifically. I know that they have strict rules about only putting your trash out the night before they come to pick it up. You’re not allowed to have it out front at all, you have to have it away in your backyard or in an alleyway.
J- And why do you think that they made that a rule?
K- Part of me wants to say, you know, just to make it seem a little cleaner but at the same time now with this project and everything I wonder if it’s because they don’t want people to be going through it.
J- Do you know anything about Philadelphia city’s program, like do you know that they make money off of collecting your recyclables and sending them off to recycling facilities?
K- No, I did not know that.
J- Yeah, so the city gets a cut of profit when they take recyclable materials to recycling facilities the same way that a trash picker would take it to a cash for trash facility. And they get profit from that and they also get profit from not paying for the disposal of those materials through either an incinerator or a landfill and that’s why Philadelphia began implementing a mandating recycling program in the 1980s. Given that the recycling program started in the 1980s, do you think that it’s an efficient program in the city? Do you think that it works well?
K- Well seeing as I had no idea that the program exists, I feel like there could be more advertation of that. I feel like, you know, the city kind of mandates that you recycle and everything as just a part of a regular trash pickup. They don’t actually tell you that you’re actually giving them money in a way.
J- So with the pick up being biweekly and the rules on what you can and can’t put out, do you think that the way that they are doing this program is efficient? Do you think that there might be a better way of doing recycling, like if you did it weekly as opposed to biweekly, if you did it with more materials or less materials that they were picking up?
K- Like I said, the pamphlet describing what they pick up was definitely the most informative one I’ve ever seen. However I do think that if they were to do it weekly instead of biweekly then that would be beneficial because the cardboard and the things that people are trying to recycle are the things that get picked up in heavy winds and carry throughout the city and litter the streets.
J- So comparing Philadelphia to any other place that you’ve lived, because I know that you’ve lived outside of Philadelphia more than you’ve lived inside of Philadelphia, can you compare their recycling pickup program with any other cities? Do you think that Philadelphia does a better job than the cities of New Jersey that you’ve lived in, or do you think that New Jersey does a better job at recycling than Philadelphia?
K- I would guess that they are probably right around the same infrastructure wise. Of course there’s always the fact that Philadelphia is- -like you see a lot more trash on the streets because of the higher population and everything but infrastructure-wise they’re pretty much the same.
J- How do you feel about Philadelphia’s nickname “Filthadelphia?”
K- I think that it’s accurate. I think that it is one of the most polluted cities that I’ve been in. Most places will have people who walk around and make sure that the garbage is not in the streets, whereas Philadelphia, really if you go anywhere that is highly populated, you would think that you would see someone there to be picking up trash with, like you said, one of those extendo-arm things, but they let it get really bad and probably do it like once a week or less and they don’t even do it thoroughly. They just use the street sweeper, which doesn’t even get it all every time.
J- Okay, great. Well I think you’ve answered all of my questions and i think that you gave me a lot of good answers, so before I end the recording is there anything else that you think might be relevant or that you’d like to add about Philadelphia’s recycling program at all?
K- Not really, no.
J- Okay, great. I’m going to stop the recording then.
class, business, toxics, pollution, recycling