Dealing with trash - and bureaucracy - pays off

Celia Pretter cleaned up her Mount Airy street but ran afoul of the rules.
Celia Pretter cleaned up her Mount Airy street but ran afoul of the rules.
Posted: May 15, 2014

Every now and then a story comes along that trashes conventional wisdom.

Celia Pretter organized a cleanup of her Mount Airy block, rented a U-Haul truck to haul the debris, and drove it last week to the city's Northwest Sanitation Convenience Center. She was turned away for using a commercial vehicle, which she had rented solely for that purpose. Irate, Pretter watched multiple pickup trucks unload what appeared to be commercial debris. Last week, I wrote a column lamenting the situation.

Summoned to the Streets Department, I fully expected to be laid to waste. Instead, Commissioner David Perri ("call me Dave") and Deputy Commissioner Donald Carlton (who started 22 years ago, working on a trash truck) told me the rules are being changed.

In several years? Multiple election cycles? After City Council convenes a special committee and myriad hearings to study the problem?

No, and you may want to sit down for this, almost immediately - effective Tuesday, May 27, right after Memorial Day.

Philadelphians will be allowed to unload junk in U-Haul or other rented trucks (as long as vehicles don't exceed 6,000 pounds). "We recognize many households don't own vehicles," said Perri, who repeatedly used the word "rubbish," which was sort of endearing.

To discourage short dumping (sanitation-speak for trashing neighborhoods), the allowable drop-off amounts will increase to 12 bags and six cans. Residents can even bring unwrapped mattresses to the centers - due to bedbugs, bags are now required for home pickup - though the department does not encourage the practice.

When I told Pretter about the changes, she was elated. She's considering ordering a T-shirt that reads "Agent of Trash." She's volunteered to serve as block captain.

Yes, she realized calling workers last week "jerks" and "idiots" wasn't a smart move. She will apologize to the people at what she initially dubbed the "Inconvenience Center" but now thinks about it otherwise.

Dubious that citizens would use personal vehicles to haul refuse, which tends to be messy and stinky, I did investigative trash reporting - a dirty job but someone has to do it.

During an hour, I watched 14 personal vehicles (many very nice late-model cars) and 10 trucks enter the Domino Lane center. Not one truck sported commercial signage, though the drivers' T-shirts did. There was plenty of waste to unload for one weekend but, yes, no way of ascertaining whether trash was commercial or residential. Other field notes: Almost all the drivers were men, and the garbage appeared to be bagged and stacked to OCD levels of cleanliness.

Turns out Philadelphia has some very clean residents. In the last year, 138,000 customers used the centers, "basically a unique, free service that isn't duplicated in the area," Perri said, meaning the wealthier suburbs.

Employees will now ask for proof of city residency - a current rule neither Pretter nor I saw being enforced - and security cameras will be installed. If a truck doesn't have commercial signage, workers will not quibble with the provenance of the debris.

Pretter hopes more people will rent trucks and haul trash to the three convenience centers: "In the long term, it will save the city money." The Streets Department prefers to come to you. "You shouldn't have to rent a truck to do cleanup. We make ourselves available to more than 6,000 block cleanups each year," said Carlton. "We want to be accommodating." Residents are encouraged to consult the website ( and make advance arrangements for block cleanups.

"It's great this happened," said Pretter, the mother of twins who attend Central High. "Maybe now I can do something about the school mess."


215-854-2586 @kheller

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