Dear Mayor Kenney:
It has undoubtedly come to your attention that the City’s sanitation workers are on the verge of a strike. If this happens, the blame for this latest preventable waste crisis in Philadelphia will fall squarely on your administration’s shoulders.
For over a year, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the City’s sanitation workers have been simultaneously overworked and neglected by the Streets Department due to the leadership’s lack of preparation and competence. It is costing workers their health and the City many thousands of dollars in overtime that could have been spent on keeping its workers healthy and safe to begin with.
Your Zero Waste and Litter Director sounded the alarm to Streets Department leadership in early April 2020 that the City needed to take measures to keep its sanitation workers safe or risked having COVID-19 rip through the Department, hurting workers and disrupting operations. He outlined practices that other cities around the world were employing to safeguard their employees and preserve their operations. The recommendations fell on the deaf ears of your appointed leadership.
As advocates for a circular economy in Philadelphia, we demand better from your administration. Sanitation workers are collection workers, and collection of materials for reuse and recycling is an integral part of any circular economy. These workers deserve to have safe and rewarding jobs, and they deserve to have management that hears their concerns and is responsive to their needs. Right now they have none of these things.
As the City has lurched from one waste crisis to the next over the past several years, it is clear that systemic changes must be made to put Philadelphia’s sanitation operations on stable footing. The callous indifference that Streets Department leadership has shown towards its workers’ safety and health is just one of many deficiencies, which also include an inability to plan for operational disruptions, a refusal to use technology to better respond to logistical challenges, and a failure to take responsibility for their own shortcomings.
There are solutions to these problems, and we are ready to work with residents, businesses, institutions and City government to implement them, but they require political will and accountability. At minimum, Streets Department leadership must take responsibility for their failure to keep workers safe and healthy. It must provide its workers with proper protective gear and begin work to transform its punitive culture that results in 30% worker absenteeism.
The City must also prioritize waste and recycling planning as well as meaningfully engage and support residents and businesses in reducing waste and shifting to a circular economy. As experts in this space, Circular Philadelphia welcomes the opportunity to help the City advance these efforts, but they must be entered into in good faith and with the full support of the administration, the Streets Department and other departments that need to be a part of this change.
And finally, Streets Department leadership must embrace the use of technology to support its operations and worker health and well being. The analog system currently employed by the Department not only makes it unable to respond to real-time operational disruptions, but it also makes the Department incapable of responding to workers’ needs by truly understanding challenges happening on the street.
Embracing technology is critical to the circular economy’s growth, and the current system prevents the Streets Department from adapting to changes in the waste stream as we move towards a circular economy. Circular Philadelphia is ready to help the City identify and implement the technologies we need to fix our broken waste system and ensure a successful shift to a thriving circular economy.
We are ready and willing to help you, but we must know your feasible and concrete plan to take immediate corrective action. What will you do right now to fix how Philadelphia manages waste and treats its sanitation workers? We—and the rest of the city’s residents and businesses—are waiting for your answer.