Our Throwaway Culture

When you get involved in any community or neighborhood organization in Philadelphia, there are some issues that always arise. Taxes, Parking, and litter. When it comes to litter, easy solutions are never to be found. Some of the solutions I’ve heard selected include adding trashcans to the street. However, it only works if they are emptied regularly. Otherwise,  they become a magnet for more trash. Another solution that keeps coming up, although admittedly bit more long-term in approach, is to educate people not to litter. If these litterers only understood that what they are doing hurts the community, and therefore themselves, then they would stop littering. This approach, while noble, and perhaps even the best permanent solution, assumes that the litterers even care about the community, let alone themselves. Their thought process must be so in-the-moment; I have something I don’t want anymore, I don’t care where it goes, as long as it’s not on me anymore.

So perhaps a way to deal with litter is through building community, and self pride. In our city, though, what role model do we have? Certainly not our government.  The disposal, or littering, of entire buildings, is tolerated, and even encouraged by our tax laws, rules and regulations. Private property owners, for years, have been allowed to walk away from their buildings with very little ramifications. As a result, whole neighborhoods have been dumped upon by these ultimate in litterers. And it’s not just private owners.

Certainly not our largest religious institutions. Buildings once used as houses of worship are also littering the landscape. The added insult to injury with many of these buildings is that they are in many cases works of art. And yet they are still left on the street as trash. Now that the public school system is under siege and in a shrinking mode, closed school buildings are also now part of the built environment litter problem.

So now we have a situation where individuals throw away snack bags and soda cans, and our religious institutions and government routinely throw away whole buildings. The fact that there are laws on the books to prevent this is of little consequence. There’s fines for littering too.  They are not enforced. It’s allowed, by default. In the case of abandoned school buildings, the city actually owns them, yet flagrantly violates their own laws on a routine basis. The buildings, once assets, become huge magnets of blight.

The disposability mentality doesn’t just stop at buildings, unfortunately.  Look at our school children and the way they’re being treated by The City and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who  have been mismanaging education for decades. My father’s second teaching job was in the Philadelphia School District. In 1956. When I talk to him now, he says he’s not surprised by the current state of affairs; the District was a mess when he taught, back when Eisenhower was president, and the Dodgers played baseball in Brooklyn.

There doesn’t seem to be a connection in the leadership’s minds between childhood education and a thriving economy. It’s better, and more fun, I suppose, for our leadership to announce big developments and tax breaks for well-connected corporations. This is epitomized by two of the lead stories in today’s press. The City of Philadelphia has decided to tackle the 28% poverty rate, the highest of the nation’s ten largest cities, with yet another program. And the City is entertaining not one, but three bids to turn the old Family Court building into a luxury hotel. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this juxtaposition. And yet, it’s really just business as usual.

So the concept of educating Philadelphians not to litter is a good one. But the anti-littering education campaign has to start much further at the top.