Discord And Doubts In The Dumpster War

Posted: January 24, 1990

Near an overturned dumpster, black plastic bags of trash are piling into a small mountain. They are half open, spilling over into a slick of yellow grease and a scattering of coffee cups, potato peelings, cardboard boxes and crumpled copies of Progressive Architecture.

Evelyn Alloy, in her navy wool coat, red scarf and black pumps, is briskly walking south on 15th Street, a block from the posh quarters of the Union League and the Bellevue Stratford. She looks down on the tiny thoroughfare known as Moravian Street and spots the disheveled heap. It brings her to a halt.

"It's ugly - it offends me aesthetically," declares Alloy, a Center City resident. "It's so filthy you don't want to walk down the street. But the primary concern is health. It affects our health - all of us - if you have rats and mosquitoes."

Nonetheless, the kind of mess that has mucked up Moravian Street extends much farther - to South Street and West Philadelphia, to the Italian Market and the Far Northeast. Everywhere, big boxy dumpsters are unregulated and unwatched, often unkempt and overflowing.

But not unnoted. Not anymore.

For the last two years, community leaders, business owners and trash haulers have joined city officials in working on the dumpster disarray. City Council passed a dumpster ordinance in June that was viewed by many as a compromise bill that didn't give any group all it wanted but seemed a workable start.

"As far as I was concerned, it was one of the few pieces of legislation that had a long period of development and had as many people as possible involved in it," said Alphonse Pignataro, executive director of the Center City Proprietors Association.

But even so, debate persists about how much will really be accomplished after all of this dumpster discussion.

Funding for the dumpster program is still uncertain. And controversy has come with recent regulations that were supposed to implement the new law. Community leaders say the regulations should be stronger. Many restaurateurs, on the other hand, have opposed the law altogether.

Still, many involved in drawing up the law are optimistic, saying it will help clean up places such as Moravian Street, which Pignataro predicts will ''go down in history as the garbage street of the universe."

"We won't have the mess we have today," predicted Councilwoman Joan Specter, sponsor of the ordinance. "Dumpsters are one of the major causes of filth in our city."

In Center City, at least 50 percent of the trash that clogs up city streets, alleys and sidewalks is generated by businesses - and much of it comes from overflowing, unmaintained dumpsters, according to a study by PhilaPride, the nonprofit, anti-litter organization.

The problem is so bad on places such as Sansom and Moravian Streets that ''I've taken people on walking tours and I advise them to be careful of their footwear," insists Paula M. Young, Philapride executive director.

To help manage the mounting mess, the new law requires that dumpsters be licensed and that, if at all possible, they be placed on private property, rather than in streets, sidewalks or alleys. License fees are an incentive: It costs $250 a year to license a dumpster in the public right-of-way, while private-property users pay a one-time $50 fee.

Under the law, dumpsters also must be securely closed and bear the identification of the user and hauler. To reduce the stench, restaurants and other food handlers have to use garbage disposals. And the law has teeth: Penalties go up to $300 a day, and business-privilege licenses may be revoked.

However, the most recent version of regulations drawn to implement the new law brought heated protest to a hearing Jan. 8.

"The way the regulations read was unacceptable, and the application was a joke," contended Fluffy Palmer, vice president of the South Street Neighborhood Association. "I think what they have to do is keep in mind the intent of the law, which is not simply to license and collect money for the city."

Changes to beef up the regulations are in the works, according to Don Kligerman, commissioner of licenses and inspections. "I really want to make the program work," he said.

But the city's fiscal problems also pose a threat to getting the program started: "I have to figure out how to license and implement this program - with 4,000-on-up dumpsters - without any additional resources," Kligerman complained.

Enforcement of the program was to be carried out, in large part, by the corps of ticket-writing sanitation workers hired for the planned Streets and Walkways Education and Enforcement Program (SWEEP). But budget strains have

put that program in jeopardy, too. Today, Council's Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing that is to include discussion of whether SWEEP gets its first-time funding of $1.5 million.

"There will be adequate resources available to enforce the law if the program is passed," said Patrick Starr of the Streets Department.

Councilwoman Specter argued, too, that the license fees generated by the dumpster program would pay for its administration. "The program is going to create revenue. It will pay for itself," she maintained.

Either way, the program is bound for a slow start. Businesses with dumpsters must apply for a license by June 19. The city then must review the thousands of applications and in some cases visit businesses to see if a dumpster location is suitable.

But if the city can't review every business' dumpster plans right away, the process does pave the way for public involvement. A citizen "can come before the L&I Review Board and make a case that a dumpster just shouldn't be there," Starr said.

Although they want a cleaner city, too, some restaurant owners and haulers question whether the program will succeed. Many don't think it was a good idea in the first place.

"I can't see how you have an understaffed city that doesn't have money for anything, and now they're going to get people from L&I to look in the dumpsters," said Harris Eckstut, owner of the South Street restaurant Montserrat. "The dumpster legislation is just harassment."

Eckstut and others also criticized the effort for its lack of coordination with the city's recycling plans, which could change the trash picture significantly. And they have disputed the need for garbage disposals, which they say are costly to buy, repair and operate - and ineffective.

Instead of implementing the new law, city inspectors should just start citing sloppy businesses, the restaurant owners said.

"I think the ordinance was uncalled for, unnecessary and added another layer of bureaucracy that we're going to have to pay for," said David Mink, owner of the Sansom Street Oyster House in Center City.

Many trash haulers also said they believed the regulation was unnecessary, but Bill Eells, president of Ace Service Corp., said, "I don't think anyone is ever really completely satisfied, but it is a compromise."

Avidly supporting a strict dumpster law are community leaders Fluffy Palmer and Bob Pierson. Their interest has been so strong that a major part of their newsletter, "Free the Streets, Free the Sidewalks" has been dumpster- dedicated.

"They block sidewalks, they block streets, they're a constant source of litter to the streets; many of them are very smelly, and it's simply not acceptable that private trash be stored in the public spaces," said Pierson, who, like Palmer, has been active in South Street area civic associations.

Under the law, dumpsters are to be banned altogether for new buildings or when an existing building changes use. In those cases, people would have to plan for indoor garbage areas.

Other dumpsters probably will long remain a fact of city life. Particularly in Center City, buildings are small and take up most of their lot space. Trash is abundant. Indoor and private storage is difficult for many small businesses without threatening their financial survival, many say.

"We don't think it's possible to eliminate them completely," said John Higgins, executive director of the Foundation for Architecture. ". . . But they need to be controlled better."

Under the new law, a minimum schedule is set for garbage collection and dumpster maintenance and cleaning. Private-property dumpsters that can be seen by the public require screening.

"I think the regulations are a beginning, and I think they will have to be looked at after we've been living with them for a while," reflected Pignataro of the Center City Proprietors Association. "The proof will be in six months down the line."

"Take a picture now and take one again in six months," he said.

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