Philadelphia’s litter is notorious. It also harms our waterways.
TL:DR – Stop treating storm drains like trash cans
While a good-intentioned neighbor may think that the waste from a block cleanup can just go down the drain (happens more than you’d think here in Philadelphia), much of the trash that isn’t light enough to flow down the stream sits at the bottom as sediment, which also breeds nasty bacteria.
According to PWD spokesperson Laura Copeland, numerous pathogens (especially pet waste) they contain left on either the ground or the street is a serious problem, given it washes directly into storm drains and flows out to our streams during rain and snowstorms.
This is because Philly has a combined sewer system, so when we have heavy rain, the water (and everything else on our streets) gets released directly into our local waterways (likely the Delaware or Schuylkill Rivers.)
Inlet crews “constantly clean debris and litter” from over 75,000 city storm drains each year, according to Copeland. Additionally, with all of the development happening, there’s a greater concern about construction materials like concrete and other non-soluble sediments finding their way into storm drains.
“Storm drains are only for rain,” Copeland told Green Philly via email. “Anything else can cause the drain to get clogged or put pollution in our waterways.”
For construction or potentially hazardous wastes like paints and oils, Philadelphia’s sanitation department lists locations where residents can take materials on its website. The site also offers a guide on the proper disposal of materials as well.
What’s the worst thing flowing through Philadelphia’s storm drains? Pet waste.
Of all the things that find their way into city storm drains – on top of all the things that inhabit them – according to the Philadelphia Water Department, pet waste tops the list of the most dangerous and oftentimes toughest to mitigate.
The viruses and bacteria in this waste can make recreational waterways unsafe in addition to killing fish who find their oxygen gobbled up by algae and other nutrients that fertilize off the bacteria. The problem is so serious, PWD created a page on its website called “Poo-lution” that goes into detail on exactly what pet waste does to our drains and waterways.
How can I help keep harmful pollutants out of our waterways?
For starters, if you own a dog, ensuring you dispose of waste properly is a start. However, ensuring waste stays away from drains can be a communal effort courtesy of PWD’s Storm Drain Marking Program. The program is designed to kickstart neighborhood conversations about drains and provide educational reminders where the water goes and how pollutants in the system can disrupt the flow.
(See the second picture in this post for the marker.)
“The markers remind people that these drains connect us to our waterways, even if you cannot see a river or stream nearby,” said Copeland. “When neighbors get together to mark their storm drain, it naturally creates a conversation about not treating a storm drain like a trash can.”
Registration into the program provides residents with free markers featuring aquatic wildlife and the name of the watershed they live in. Additionally, residents can get assistance for community cleanups in addition to education from PWD experts on storm drains and the waterways they flow into.
“From social media videos to cleanups in the community, we talk about how trash thrown on the streets often ends up in storm drains and pollutes our water,” said Copeland.
It’s an ongoing effort.