Johan Pacheco has worked enough trash cleanups to know the drill. When he sees something white amid the greenery, he reaches for it with his picker.
“This town, people say it’s old and dirty, but they just have to help,” Pacheco said during an Allison Hill neighborhood cleanup on a chilly Saturday morning. “If everyone helps, we can all do better.”
There is a battle going on in Harrisburg, a war of the cares vs. the don’t-cares. The don’t-cares dump giant mounds of trash anywhere they think they can get away with it. The cares mobilize to pick up the trash and, they hope, prevent dumping in the first place.
This is, of course, an issue that has its news cycles. Around 2013, it was top-of-mind, attracting reporters and cameras to trash-strewn alleys and vacant lots, especially after former Mayor Linda Thompson infamously pinned the problem on “some scumbag from Perry County.”
Eventually, the press lost interest, packed up and left. Since then, say the city’s trash-fighters, progress has been made, but the struggle never ends.
“I think it’s gotten a little bit better,” said Julie Walter, Tri County Community Action’s neighborhood revitalization coordinator. “We definitely see it’s still an issue. It’s improved slightly, but I think there is still a lot of room for improvement.”
The trash problem boils down to two causes.
There is plain, old litter, tossed on streets by litterbugs, or spilling out from overflowing trash cans and uncovered recycling bins. And then there is dumping—the mounds of mattresses, diapers, TVs, tires and assorted junk that don’t make their way to the county waste facility.
Why all the dumping? It’s simple math. The city’s recovery plan imposed a $190-per-ton tipping fee on Harrisburg haulers using the Susquehanna Resource Management Complex, better known as the Harrisburg incinerator.
But in city neighborhoods where rentals dominate and turnover is high, some irresponsible junk-haulers don’t want to pay the tipping fee. Maybe they were called directly by homeowners; maybe landlords asked them to turn a blind eye. In any case, they find a quiet alley and empty their trucks.
“We clean a whole alley on a Monday, and it’ll look like we didn’t touch it by Thursday, because they’ll dump again,” said Harrisburg Public Works Director Aaron Johnson.
While the war is waged on multiple fronts, Tri County Community Action is a sort of clearinghouse. TCCA is coordinator for Keep Harrisburg Beautiful, an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, and staffs Clean & Green Harrisburg, a broad-based coalition of organizations that have a stake in de-trashing the city.
Clean & Green is the driver behind the Great Harrisburg Litter Cleanup, scheduled for this month. Last year, the Earth Day event attracted 332 volunteers, who picked up 22.4 tons of trash. TCCA coordinates with incinerator owner Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority to waive some tipping fees to dispose of the trash collected.
“We want to get 400 volunteers this year,” Walter said. “You have more area you’re able to clean up. More hands, more work.”
New this year, volunteers will get T-shirts.
“So they can all be identified as working the same event,” Walter said.
TCCA also pilot-tested “Stop the Drop,” a homegrown initiative dreamed up by Fathom Studio to turn the city’s hulking home trash receptacles into public trash cans. In a short stretch of 6th Street, where trash receptacles sit out front anyway because they can’t squeeze behind the houses, orange trash can lids with holes signal that public use is acceptable. TCCA plans to expand the program to other city neighborhoods in the summer.
“The cans are already the homeowner’s can that they’re paying for anyway,” Walter said. “It’s part of the normal cleanup.”
While TCCA rallies the troops, South Allison Hill resident Jeremy Domenico is a one-man army in the fight.
He has, he said, personally removed more than 450,000 pounds of trash and 400 televisions from city streets in two years. As vice president of the South Allison Hill Homeowners and Residents Association, he has led efforts to remove another 200,000 pounds of trash.
“I was tired of coming out of my house every day of my life and seeing trash, so I cleaned up my street,” he said.
When trash blew in from Derry Street, he started cleaning Derry Street, and the effort radiated from there.
Today, Domenico and association President Shirley Blanton organize weekly cleanups throughout the neighborhood, distributing safety vests and needle- and cut-proof gloves. Domenico collects evidence that points to the dumping culprits and testifies in court—131 times, all successful, he said. He recruits parolees who fulfill their community service requirements by trash-picking, and “none have gone back to prison.”
Pacheco, the resident who wants to make the city better, was a DUI parolee who continued to join cleanups after completing his community service hours, no matter the weather.
“I want to make an example for my two daughters,” he said.
Domenico, too, looks to the future, encouraging children to help with summer cleanups. He used to offer candy as payment but has learned that kids mostly like wearing the vests.
“I really believe that you have to stop the mindset of Harrisburg now, and the only way you’re going to do it is through education,” he said.
In Harrisburg’s Camp Curtin neighborhood, resident Brian Mummau agrees.
“My wife and I and people we talk to ask how we change this culture where kids feel it’s OK to drop trash,” said Mummau, who helps flight blight with Camp Curtin Community Neighborhood United.
The coalition is leading the neighborhood’s April cleanup, while Mummau is starting to organize monthly, small-scale pickups.
Big cleanups make a difference, but they tend to attract volunteers from outside the area, Mummau said. The help is welcomed, but “it doesn’t give people who live here that ownership.”
His monthly cleanups are meant to target the worst sites and promote community-building, “with the thought that, if we keep it cleaned up, they may not dump or throw down as much.”
As citizens clean up or call in dump sites, the Harrisburg Public Works Department collects the trash and hauls it away, covering the tipping fee from its budget.
“It’s more of them than us right now,” said department Director Johnson. “We’re kind of losing the battle, but we’re better than we used to be because more people are paying attention to it. People are getting tired of it.”
A city enforcement officer often finds evidence of the offenders, but fines of only $50 are hardly a deterrent, said Johnson. A proposal going before City Council could create “some teeth to fine people” up to $1,000, he said.
“We need to put the word out there that the city is no longer tolerating this,” he said.
Johnson’s office also worked with the city’s Law Bureau to update littering ordinances. Offenders can get a warning and, for repeated offenses, citations to appear before the district justice. In a perfect world, Johnson said, he would have two cherry pickers constantly working in Uptown and Allison Hill, but his crew is also responsible for paving streets, which takes time during the summer.
“When we get calls (about dumping), we definitely go out and get it,” he said.
Another major player in this battle is Capital Region Water, which must implement pollution prevention efforts under the federal Clean Water Act. Basically, that means keeping trash out of the water system.
Since October 2015, CRW has cleared more than 115 tons of debris from inlets, but such items as rags and flattened bottles still flow into sewers and worm their way past screens in the wastewater treatment plant. In 2016, such debris had to be removed 76 times to prevent damage to pumps. A $5 million, two-year screening upgrade is underway to strengthen the system’s defenses against debris, said Community Outreach Manager Andrew Bliss.
CRW supports the work of Clean & Green Harrisburg, financially and with resources. Riffing on Clean & Green’s “2-Minute Tuesday” program (get out there and sweep up for a couple of minutes), CRW launched monthly cleanups in November 2014. Held at sites suggested by residents, each effort starts with door-knocking the week before. On the appointed day, CRW brings the tools, volunteers collect litter, and CRW hauls the trash away.
“Some months, we get just a few people and five to 10 bags of trash,” said Bliss. “There’ve been some cleanups in 30 minutes where we fill up two dumpsters of trash. It’s pretty amazing how much you can accomplish in just 30 minutes.”
On that chilly Saturday morning in South Allison Hill, the intrepid crew of Domenico, Blanton, Pacheco and a few other volunteers cleared a slope above Derry Street of its cigarette butts, plastic straws, Swiss Tea bottles, broken glass and jumbo-sized Speedway Club Chill cups. Domenico hauls the trash to the incinerator himself and has been known to use his pickup truck to block illegal haulers from getting away while he calls the authorities.
“It’s home,” Domenico said, explaining his devotion. “It’s home. We’ve got to try to do the best we can.”
The 5th annual Great Harrisburg Litter Cleanup is slated for April 22, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at sites throughout the city. For more information, how to participate and how to become a sponsor, visit www.cactricounty.org/great-harrisburg-litter-cleanup.