Scientific Data Analysis-JM

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

In the 1980s, Philadelphia’s old and abandoned Nabisco factory was a recycling collector’s dream. Abandoned and bountiful with recyclable materials, scrap haulers frequented the property and filled their carts with materials to trade for cash at local buy-back programs. Like the man in the first photo from my image analysis, scrap haulers would come with shopping carts and bags to hold their materials. The factory was eventually transitioned into a recycling center known as National Temple Recycling Center. Since this property was important for scrap haulers and recycling center employees both, I chose to use it as my site for this data analysis. To study the data, I centered my research on the property’s Northeastern Philadelphia address, 12000 Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia. This is an urban area within a very large and densely populated city, so I established a 0.25-mile radial buffer around the property. Coming into this, I wanted to know what environmental risks plague this property and who are the people being exposed to them. Who is working on this property, and what risks do they face in doing so?

12000 Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA with a 0.25-mile radial buffer

The first data I want to analyze is the environmental indicators. Three indicators stuck out to me: the lead paint indicator, the air toxics respiratory hazards, and finally, the air toxics cancer risks. 12000 Roosevelt Boulevard’s lead paint indicator is outrageously high. This indicator is a percentage of housing units that have possible exposure to lead paint due to being built before 1960. We know now that lead paint can have detrimental health effects. This property is in the 95th percentile for the United States. The value of this data is 0.85; this is 3 times the national average of 0.28. This means that anyone who came into this area was very likely exposed to lead paint and we can be almost certain that the scrap haulers and recycling center employees who worked at the property were exposed as well. 

The graph for the site’s most relevant environmental indicators

The air toxics respiratory hazard value is the risk of air toxin exposure based on the concentration of toxins in the surrounding air. For this site, the national percentile was 60-70th. This is higher than both the state of Pennsylvania’s average as well as the country’s. The data is not as extreme as the lead paint value, but it still suggests that there was a significant risk for those who lived or worked in the area. The air toxins within the area do not stop here, unfortunately, because the air toxins cancer risk for the area was also higher than both the state and nation’s averages. This means that there was a higher lifetime risk of cancer for the inhabitants of this area than the rest of the state or nation. 

The data table for the site’s most relevant environmental and demographic indicators

Next are the demographic indicators. This data helps answer the “who” part of my research; who is being exposed to these environmental risks? According to the EJSCREEN’s data, it’s the elderly and the undereducated. 26% of the population within 0.25 miles from the old Nabisco factory is over the age of 64. This is significantly higher than the average for the state or nation, putting this area in the 90th percentile in the USA. Through this data, it’s very obvious that the elder population is prominent here; they are also probably more vulnerable to the environmental risks near the property due to their age. 

The site’s most relevant demographic indicators

This area also has many people with less than high school education. The value of people with this education is 10% and is actually pretty average for the state and the nation. However, having a population that is overwhelmingly elderly or undereducated allows researchers like myself to infer than there is probably little understanding of the environmental risks associated with the area. By layering additional demographics over the map of my area, I could see that there were also many people within the population here that are living below the poverty line. 

The map with an additional layer showing the population below the poverty line. The darker green up top is the side of the highway that the site is located on.

There are a few inferences to be made from this data. Each of these indicators relates to each other and help to answer my original questions of who and what was at this factory. The population being mostly elderly or undereducated suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the environmental risks this property is plagued with. It also suggests that these people had little upward mobility that would allow them to leave the area for a safer one. There were probably few job opportunities for these people, forcing them to rely on the factory as a garden for recyclable material to sell and later as an employment opportunity when the recycling center opened. Being below the poverty line also suggests that even if they wanted to, people probably could not afford to leave or repair the area for safer conditions. 

In my photos from my image analysis, you can see the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) that the private collector has. The data here suggests that this lack of PPE may have been a result of not knowing how to protect himself from hazardous materials or not having the financial means to access such equipment. The demographics surrounding this recyclable-material-rich factory reinforces my argument that the lower-class and vulnerable citizens like the elderly are dependent on buy-back programs for survival. It’s unfortunate that the dependence also forces these people to expose themselves to the environmental hazards shown to be in this area. 

It wasn’t only the scrap haulers exposing themselves here, though. The employees of the recycling center that the factory was turned into were just as exposed, although we can see from the second image in my previous analysis that they did have at least some PPE available to them. From the image, we see that there are gloves, goggles, masks, and hard hats protecting the workers. But this data shows that there are more risks than the handling of materials along a conveyor belt; employees won’t be protected from lead paint and air toxins through masks worn haphazardly as we saw in the photo. When these employees are not on the conveyor belt line like when they are in the bathroom or the breakroom, they are still at risk of these air toxins and are probably not wearing a mask when they are not in contact with the recyclable materials. 

This data creates a narrative for the scrap haulers and recycling center employees who worked in these hazardous conditions. Demographically they may have been different or lived in different areas, but they all came to the same site for work. The environmental risks that this property contains are not biased; they will affect a young working man in the recycling center just as much as an elderly woman collecting cans and newspapers. The environmental indicators show that this influential property exposed countless people who, based on the demographic indicators, were already vulnerable and marginalized. The dangers within this property’s area are not isolated to this site. These environmental hazards are widespread throughout Philadelphia and even the entire country. The members of the demographics for this site exist throughout America and are too often forced to expose themselves to similar-and sometimes worse- environmental risks simply because they have no other choice. 


class, business, toxics, pollution, recycling