City officials point out that more than 100,000 fines were issued for trash-related violations in fiscal year 2011, which ended June 30, including more than 600 tickets to businesses that flouted the no-circular sticker. That's a lot considering the economy has beaten the city budget, forcing painful cuts and tough choices, they say.
A closer look at the statistics shows that enforcement is a bit selective when it comes to the more than 50 ordinances in the city code governing litter, Dumpsters, household trash, recycling, construction debris and other refuse-related material. For instance, you were nine times more likely to get a ticket for not separating recycling from your trash (21,219 violations) as you were for littering (1,429 violations).
And the number of tickets issued for all code violations was about 12 percent lower than the recent peak in fiscal year 2009, according to data from the Department of Finance.
Of course, stricter enforcement wouldn't be necessary if certain Filthadelphians would just stop throwing trash on the ground.
Besides, said officials at the Streets Department and the Department of Licenses & Inspections, if law-abiding citizens took that extra step by reporting those who break the rules against littering and illegal dumping, the city could do its job better.
Thousands of tickets
Kane admitted that she hasn't reported the businesses who are papering her door, but she said that it's because L&I includes the address of a complainant on violations.
"I don't want to take a risk that a psycho will drive by my house," she said.
Maura Kennedy, L&I spokeswoman, said that the addresses are included to let business owners know specifically which homes to stop delivering to, and to appeal the violation if necessary.
"We have not - knock on wood - had any negative experiences reported to us because of this," Kennedy said, adding that a business owner once visited the home of a person who was getting unwanted junk mail and apologized.
The circular program, which is administered by L&I, is but a sliver of the enforcement pie.
The Streets Department has 56 SWEEP officers - about one enforcement officer per 27,000 residents, roughly the same ratio as New York - canvassing the city, carrying handheld computers linked to a database of violations that process tickets on the spot.
SWEEP, which stands for Streets and Walkways Education and Enforcement Program, writes tickets for everything from high weeds (18,982 violations) to littered sidewalks (13,891), and dumping on private property (922) to dirty or overflowing Dumpsters (2,887).
"It's one of the hardest jobs in the world to get people to change something they're used to doing," Kerry Withers, a SWEEP enforcement supervisor, said during a patrol in Fairhill last week.
The ranks of SWEEP officers include 10 that joined the department last year to increase pressure on violators, but even with the new hires the number of code violations issued in 2010 plunged from the previous year by about 45 percent.
Deputy Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams attributed the drop to getting used to the new handheld computers.
"We kind of gave them a period to adjust to that before we started giving citations," he said, adding that during a 2010 training period, SWEEP officers issued warnings to ensure that they were using the devices correctly.
Violations jumped back up, although Williams and SWEEP officers said that the agency is now looking to educate people before slapping them with fines.
Caught in the act?
Between 2010 and this year, tickets issued for littering increased from 924 to 1,429.
That's progress, but it's hardly anything compared to the number of times people thoughtlessly dropped their empty McDonald's cup or unwrapped the foil on their pack of cigarettes and let it flutter to to ground.
Among the several difficulties in the struggle to enforce litter laws, Williams said, is that it's hard to fine people for littering because offenders must be caught in the act.
SWEEP officers have partnered with police to keep tabs on high-grime areas, Williams said.
Although officers could sit in high-traffic areas watching and waiting to issue people tickets for littering, Williams said that that type of stakeout would be impractical.
"It is very difficult to sustain such an operation because of the tremendous amount of resources needed from the Streets Department and the Police Department to change and deter this behavior long-term," he said.
In the case of illegal dumping, the city recently obtained the technological resources to keep a virtual eye on areas where people believed that they were safe to dump without being caught. In 2009, the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services installed a network of mobile digital cameras in areas notorious for illegal dumping to catch violators in the act.
Williams said that the cameras have caught 22 dumpers this year. The Streets Department plans to use a state grant to replicate the existing mobile network and expand to more areas.
But another challenge to enforcement is that there's a dual lack of accountability for violators. That's in part because the city's nonemergency 3-1-1 system, which receives complaints about violators, hasn't lived up to its promises or potential.
Residents often grumble that calls to 3-1-1 don't resolve the problem they're complaining about. And, according to a report released last week by City Controller Alan Butkovitz, only 7 percent of calls into the system were ever monitored.
The other part is that less than half of the hundreds of thousands of tickets issued for trash-related offenses issued in the last five years have been paid, said June Cantor, a Streets Department spokeswoman.
Withers and other city officials, however, stress that enforcing these regulations is primarily to educate the public.
"Somewhere along the line it became fine for people to walk around and just drop their trash anywhere," Withers said. "You have to change a whole mind-set now."