City Howl Help Desk: Overbrook neighborhood in Philadelphia plagued by illegal dumping of leaves

The city wants leaves put into biodegradable bags.
The city wants leaves put into biodegradable bags.
Posted: December 08, 2010

GOOD NEWS! Remember Juanita Hatton, from last week's Help Desk, who had a sewage problem she couldn't afford to fix? Mike Ditty, a plumber from the Northeast who had read about her problem, came by on Friday to fix it. He even carted away the human waste from her backyard - all for free.

Ditty, for his part, is very confident that the work PGW did on the block last month had nothing to do with Hatton's problems (he didn't look into the other houses on the street with water trouble). "She just had a really bad clogged drain," he said.

A big Help Desk "thank you" to Ditty for stepping up and helping fix this problem. Now on to this week:

THE PROBLEM: Every fall, bags of leaves, branches and other yard refuse are deposited along the landscaped medians on Lebanon Avenue and nearby streets in Overbrook. And every fall, the Neighbors of Overbrook Association (NOAH) calls 3-1-1 or the Streets Department to report the illegal dumping.

Resident Ryan Caviglia believes that neighbors and landscapers are responsible for the bags, which are eyesores on medians that residents have put money and time into landscaping.

The Streets Department has always been responsive to calls from NOAH and removed the bags fairly quickly, Caviglia said.

"But the problem is so persistent," he added. He wonders if anything can be done to prevent the dumping in the first place.

HOW IT'S SUPPOSED TO WORK: From Nov. 8 through Dec. 17, Streets runs its annual bagged-leaf drive. During this six-week period, residents can collect leaves in biodegradable bags (available at hardware and home-improvement stores) and put them out with their trash.

In an effort to boost recycling, the leaves are composted (bags and all) at a center in Fairmount Park, and the mulch is used in public gardens all over the city, Deputy Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams said.

There's no limit to how many bags a resident can put out, but they can't weigh more than 40 pounds each. Any leaves in plastic bags will be considered trash. Streets will collect them, but the leaves won't be recycled.

Residents who don't want to wait for trash day can drop bags at three Sanitation Convenience Centers in the Northeast, Southwest and Roxborough.

(The city used to offer mechanical leaf collection in certain areas but the service was cut from the budget in fall of 2009.)

Streets set aside $600,000 to $700,000 annually for mechanical and curbside leaf collection, Williams said. It now spends just $150,000 on curbside collection.

WHEN IT DOESN'T WORK: Starting in October, Streets publicizes the bagged-leaf drive in local newspapers, on Channel 64, on its website and in a water-bill stuffer. It does not use robocalls.

But not everyone gets the message; some who do don't listen.

Caviglia thinks that at least some of the dumping in Overbrook occurs because residents aren't informed about proper leaf-collection methods. "I think the city relies a whole lot on block captains to tell neighbors things," said Caviglia, a block captain himself.

If asked, Streets will send SWEEPS officers to community meetings to talk with residents about proper collection methods, Williams said.

Caviglia also wonders if there's something else that those officers can do: enforcement. "At what point does the city do something to handle it better?" he asked.

SWEEPS officers can issue tickets for illegal dumping, which usually carries a fine of $300.

The bags of yard waste and leaves that appear on medians in Overbrook are definitely instances of illegal dumping.

The best bet, Williams said, is to call Streets at 215-686-5560 as soon as illegal dumping takes place so that a SWEEPS team can respond and notify police. The more identifying information a resident can provide, such as a license plate number, the better. SWEEPS officers have issued 36 tickets for illegal leaf-dumping this fall.

Caviglia thinks that SWEEPS officers also could more closely monitor areas where illegal dumping happens often, catching people in the act and issuing fines. It's a quality-of-life issue, he said.

To Williams it's also a matter of limited resources. Forty-six SWEEPS officers have to monitor the entire city, and focusing on one area means that others suffer. The best the city can do, he said, is to respond to complaints.

BONUS LEAF PROBLEM: If you go to a sanitation center with a bunch of leaves and get turned away, stick to your guns. That's what Peggy Van Belle, who lives in Fox Chase, did in November when she took 15 bags of leaves to the center on State Road and Ashburner Street. An employee at the center told her that she had to drop off leaves on Saturdays.

Not true. Van Belle went home, checked the Streets website, then called the department. By the time she got back to the center, a Streets rep had called the center on her behalf, and Van Belle dropped off her leaves.

Dealt with city services lately? How did it go? Let us know at thecityhowl.com, e-mail howl@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5855.

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