Terrill Haigler aka @_yafavtrashman always wanted to be a Philadelphia trashman.
He applied for the job two years ago, excited for the benefits that a city job could bring. He didn’t yet know how grueling the job would be. That changed seven months ago when he stepped aboard the city Sanitation Division’s large white trucks and began picking up the garbage of his native North Philadelphia.
“This has been one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done in my life, consistently,” Haigler said.
Haigler has worked tough jobs, including construction, to feed his three kids. But working as a city sanitation worker has been the most humbling — and insight-generating— occupation of his 30 years. Last week, we worked for 13 days straight, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“It’s just the beat that your body takes, the mental, the emotions, the elements you deal with, the rain… And, you know, sometimes you gotta deal with the public who aren’t happy with their trash and everything,” Haigler said.
Philadelphia residents have not lately been happy with their trash collection — or lack thereof. Although the Sanitation Division of the city’s Streets Department has slowly caught up on collection, the city is still behind on trash pickup days. In some areas, the city suspended recycling. The result: an extended banquet for rodents and flies, and smelly sidewalks blocked with trash bags and cans for wheelchair-users and pedestrians to navigate under the oppressive heat. Rubbish and recycling 311 complaints are still twice the amount of those received pre-COVID.
Mayor Jim Kenney has blamed the weather, while Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams says delays are caused by a 25% increase in trash tonnage and a staff shortage of caused by the pandemic. Meanwhile, the union representing 1,100 sanitation workers said those are excuses for mismanagement and lack of leadership.
Haigler said all of those are true. The collection is bound to be delayed if 10% of your workforce is out fighting COVID, he said. But instead of blaming everyone, he wanted to focus on a solution and started a fundraiser effort to get N95 masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies for sanitation workers.
The city has given sanitation workers masks and gloves, Haigler said, but not the proper ones for their job. He said picking up trash with the big plastic face shield he got is impossible. And that the gloves he got are not puncture-proof, so they don’t protect from needles, nails and other hazards. He wants to help solve the problem by raising money for more gear.
By Wednesday morning, Haigler had reached one-fourth of his goal: to sell 2,000 T-shirts, enough to help his colleagues stay safe until next winter.
“I just want to bring awareness to the fact that we are left out of the top when it comes to being essential. So, you know, I really don’t get it whose fault it is — I just deal with how can we come together, get what we need, and keep the city in a constant flow of picking the trash up.”
Street cleaning problems that predate the pandemic
Union representatives from AFSCME District Council 33 are not alone when saying the weather, increased trash tonnage, and COVID are not the only factors contributing to the current trash crisis.
Nic Esposito, the city’s former Zero Waste and Litter cabinet director, said our sanitation system was broken long before COVID. That’s why the city created his former office four years ago.
The pandemic just made the cracks give and everything collapsed, including his office, which was dismantled to make up with the city’s reduced budget.
Esposito said the city has the initiatives and the capacity to plan and manage situations like this better, but said there’s a lack of political will and further resources to implement them. He said his office, for example, was set to failure because it didn’t have the funds or the political power to implement solutions to actually reduce waste and litter in the city.
Other solutions, like hiring temporary workers to support staff in times of higher demand or using technology to improve collection, were available, but not implemented.
“The proof is out there — it’s undeniable that there is a problem. And I think that the administration, they have to look to leadership and just really hold them accountable and ask why? Why is this happening?,” he said.
Before leaving his office, three months ago, Esposito compiled waste management best practices during COVID and sent them to Streets Commissioner Williams.
PlanPhilly got access to the document with 12 recommendations which include wearing all personal protective gear including gloves, masks and protective eye equipment and hand sanitizer; washing the cabin of the trucks after every shift; suspending recycling temporarily and asking residents to use two bags in everything they’re throwing away; and promoting ways for people to reduce waste as much as possible.
Commissioner Williams said in an interview he did not receive the document but an email sent from his account to the senders acknowledges “the background” information. More generally though, Carlton said the department already has in place some of these recommended practices. The Streets Department requires employees to use PPE, sanitizes truck cabins after every shift, and take other precautionary measures, he said.