15. Street Cleaning, Leaf Blowers & the Climate Crisis

This show aired on Friday June 14, 2019 on PhillyCAM’s radio station WPPM 106.5 FM in Philadelphia. You can hear the audio anytime. The script is below. Produced by Meenal & Tanya.

Hello and welcome

Hello and welcome to Philly Talks Climate — where we talk about the climate crisis, how it affects Philadelphia, and how we solve this for our region. I’m Meenal Raval, and I’ll be your host. I’m joined this week by my long-time friend Tanya Seaman.

Last week

Last week, we talked about The State of Recycling and Trash in Philly. We tried to answer — What happens when we place our trash or recycling at the curb? Where has our trash and recycling been going? What’s so bad about incineration? How does this tie in to our Zero-Waste by 2035 goal? And, what do we do with our trash?

This week

This week, our theme is street cleaning. Why we need to clean our streets. How the Kenney administration has approached street cleaning. How we should clean our streets. Where do our Council members stand on the subject of street cleaning. And, how do other cities keep their streets clean?

Street cleaning is a pretty normal function of city governments around the world. And yet the City of Philadelphia stopped cleaning our streets about a decade ago.

Philadelphia is now the only major US city without a street-cleaning program.This is most definitely why our own residents refer to it as PhilTH-adelphia. In Mayor John Street’s first term in the early 2000s, he dismantled the street-cleaning program because some residents didn’t want to move their cars. One of Mayor Jim Kenney’s campaign promises was to bring back street sweeping, and four years later, this April, his administration launched a pilot street-cleaning program in six neighborhoods, neighborhoods with the worst litter in the city.

How the Kenney administration has approached street cleaning

According to a Billy Penn article published in April this year, the City is employing crews of seven people for street sweeping. A task done with a crew of two people in most other cities.

The crew uses gas-powered backpack blowers to blow street litter from under cars, and into the center of the street, where it is vacuumed up by a street-cleaning truck. The main reason they are using these blowers is because the City is not requiring the owners of the cars to move them on street-cleaning days. If the cars were out of the way, the street-cleaning trucks could vacuum up the litter directly. Unfortunately, our mayor is concerned about inconveniencing drivers.

Why we need to clean our streets

There are a few reasons we need to clean our streets on a regular basis.

First, we do have trees, and they drop leaves that pile up on the street. These leaves, plus litter and whatever blows around on trash day, make it difficult to navigate the street.

When it rains, this litter washes into our storm drains and clogs them. When it rains hard and fast, as we’ve seen recently, the clogged storm drains means the water backs up and floods our crosswalks. This makes it harder to cross streets, especially for people who depend on crosswalk ramps —  such as people in wheelchairs, who end up taking lengthy detours. Our Water Department spends millions of dollars every year unclogging our storm drains from this debris. Cleaning our streets is important preventative maintenance.

Kelly O’Day, a retired environmental engineer, who has written extensively about litter in Tacony Creek, has another important angle for us on street litter. Maybe you’ve heard about the Great Pacific Plastic Patch, in the Pacific Ocean? It’s located halfway between California and Hawaii, and is twice the size of Texas. It grows by about two million tons every year. The Great Pacific Plastic Patch is made of our discarded plastic items that end up floating there, from all over the world! This is the largest of five patches of plastic in our planet’s oceans.

Why is this relevant to a city on the other side of the country? Well, it turns out that our plastic litter — that which ends up on our streets instead of in recycling bins and trash cans — goes down the storm drains in our streets and in our rivers. The water in our storm drains is supposed to be treated before it gets dumped into our rivers, but when we have too much rain, our water system overflows, and it goes directly into our rivers — untreated.

According to federal regulations under the Clean Water Act, the City is supposed to be filtering out anything that floats — like plastic — but it doesn’t. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have been reluctant to enforce this problem because it’s due to the lack of street cleaning. Some states, like New Jersey aggressively enforce trapping all floatable materials. Camden, for example, does a better job of preventing floatable trash from ending up in its rivers.

Is this a new problem? Yes. According to O’Day, for most of his career, he was working to clean up water from materials that decayed, like newspaper. But in the last couple of decades, we’ve had this new problem with plastic, which replaced so many materials, and when fast food and single-use items have really become commonplace.

In a big rain event, anything that’s sitting on or near our river banks ends up in the river, which then flows down to the ocean. Maybe you’ve stood by one of our rivers or creeks after a really heavy rain, to see how high the water is? If so, you have probably also seen lots of things floating in it — logs, plastic bottles, and other trash. You may have also seen it stay on the river banks or trails afterward the water goes down.

While our own trash is not contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is feeding a different one, the North Atlantic Garbage Patch. This patch is hundreds of miles wide. These enormous garbage patches have taught us that plastic lasts forever, that it breaks into tiny particles that get ingested by sea life, and that it chokes off life in large areas of the ocean.

The Philadelphia Water Department doesn’t have any control over the Streets Department, and so can’t get the streets cleaned. However, the Water Department has been working on a stormwater initiative called Green City, Clean Waters, which reduces the amount of water running into our storm drains. Over a period of 25 years, it is improving the water treatment plants, but most importantly, it is creating permeable surfaces in streets, parks, schools, and other public areas so that rain water can infiltrate directly into the ground and not need to go into the stormwater sewers. Since our stormwater and building sewer systems are combined in many areas of the city, reducing the flow of water in our sewer systems means that more can be treated before it goes into our rivers.

A two-stroke commercial leaf blower produces as many hydrocarbon emissions in 30 minutes as a Ford F-150 pickup truck driving almost 4,000 miles!

Ok, back to street sweeping!

The final reason to clean our streets is to remove debris that becomes airborne on windy days. This debris can be leaves, food and food-wrappings, as well as used hypodermic needles. If you’re in a car or on a bus, this won’t affect you. But if you’re riding a bike, walking down the street, or waiting for a bus, you will inhale a lot of debris. It will get in your hair, your eyes, your mouth, and on your clothing.

This is also what you experience if you are anywhere near the seven-person crew blowing street crud from under the parked cars. In addition to the blowing particulate matter, the emissions of gas-powered blowers is a problem. Since they use gasoline, they are emitting carbon monoxide, which is not what any of us breathe. (We breathe a mixture of gases that is mostly oxygen.) Carbon monoxide is toxic to us and to our planet, and it is a greenhouse gas. This means that it contributes to heating up our planet and messes with our climate, throwing off our seasons.

It was an article in the Weavers Way Shuttle titled Hazardous to Your Health: Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers that got us interested in street cleaning with their reference to a 2011 study showing that a two-stroke commercial leaf blower produces as many hydrocarbon emissions in 30 minutes as a Ford F-150 pickup truck driving almost 4,000 miles! This is a pretty large pickup truck!

We verified this on Edmunds’ Inside Line, an online newsletter for automotive consumers. The unregulated leaf blowers also produce more carbon monoxide than a Fiat, which is a tiny car. The exhaust from these blowers enters our buildings through open windows and doors, especially if we have them open to ventilate our indoor spaces.

Finally, leaf blowers are very loud. Their volume is so high that this too enters our homes and offices. Anyone traveling outside also has to deal with the noise. This noise is an added stressor. The World Health Organization has created sound guidelines that suggest that outdoor sounds should not be higher than 55 decibels during the day and not higher than 45 decibels for sleeping. Blowers can be as loud as 90 to 100 decibels right at the blower, and about 75 decibels three houses away. Hearing damage can be a real outcome of exposure to 75 decibels. This level of noise can result in health problems, particularly of the cardiovascular system.

According to No Noise dot org, “noise interferes with communication, sleep, and work. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) says noise degrades quality of life by impairing communication and social interaction; reducing the accuracy of work, particularly complex tasks; and creating stressful levels of frustration and aggravation that last even when the noise has ceased.”

Personal Experiences

Meenal: I love open windows when at home, where I can feel the breeze and listen to birdsong. When neighbors start up their leaf blowers, it’s jarring to those inside their homes. The gasoline odors soon waft inside, reminding me that others still use fossil fuels, even though my own home is fossil fuel free. What an intrusion into my personal space. Maybe I’ll need to introduce rakes to my neighbors! So quiet… 

Tanya: The other day I was riding home from Center City, past the Grays Ferry Triangle at South 23rd & South Streets. A few people in day-glo vests were blowing street litter from under the parked cars, readying the area for Odunde, the largest African American festival in the US. I covered my mouth with my sleeve and rode on through. I took a detour to avoid a few more blocks’ of this blowing. There was dust everywhere. Now of course this wouldn’t be so bad if we had regular street cleaning. But one should not be subjected to this on a regular basis.

Another day recently, I was riding up South 22nd Street in the bike lane, and saw ahead of me that some street litter was blowing up off the street, in my path.  I wasn’t sure if it was going to hit me, go up my nose, or what. That’s the problem with not cleaning our streets: it’s not just the blowers that are a problem, but the wind can whip up all of this street crud too.

How should we clean our streets?

Image credit: https://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/fp/calls-stop-cutting-dundee-street-cleaning-jobs/

So, since there are all these problems with leaf blowers, how should we be cleaning our streets?

First, we need to get people to move their cars out of the way. In other cities, each block has a designated day of the week, once or twice a month. If you drive frequently, this is not an issue. If you don’t use your car much, you put this in your calendar so that you’ll move your car in time. If you drive your car to work, you’ll probably move it on street-cleaning day anyway, so it’s not a big deal. Moving your car so the public space can be properly cleaned is part of the responsibility of owning a car and using public space to park your car for free or very little cost.

There is a real climate benefit to moving cars for street cleaning — aside from the obvious no-blower situation. One of the benefits of getting cars to move is that abandoned cars can be towed, and so we can finally be rid of abandoned cars from our blocks.

Also, if people feel like they’re only driving their cars on street-cleaning days, they’ll decide it’s not worth the hassle, and they may get rid of their cars. This can free up our street parking so that residents stop insisting that new developments include off-street parking. As infrequent drivers get rid of their excess cars, they will choose to walk, bike, or take public transit more often. For those times a car is the best vehicle for their trip, they can use a car-sharing service.

Tanya: I’m one of those people. I lived in downtown San Francisco for a few years, where keeping a car was impossible. So I parked my car across town, specifically a long streetcar-ride away, and moved it for street cleaning every couple of weeks. This took me a bit longer than my lunch hour. At one point, when my car was starting to rust out, I realized I only drove it to move for street cleaning, and I drove it to the junkyard. I’ve never owned a car since.

Now, for the actual cleaning, we can employ people to push brooms and run vacuum cleaners. In fact, the Center City District has been doing this for almost three decades. They have a crew of people who sweep our streets and sidewalks, and use electric vacuum cleaners that are pretty quiet. They maintain the commercial streets in Center City, and even contract out to Old City and the residential blocks of West Center City.

Equipment like this could be used citywide in conjunction with the large street-sweeping trucks. One of the important aspects of the Center City District’s street-cleaning work is that they hire and train low-skilled people, many of whom are recently homeless.

A seven-person crew might be great for boosting employment, but we’ve already mentioned all the downsides to using blowers because the City doesn’t think we should move our cars. But employment should not be the only criteria we use. Yes, we can hire a lot of people to clean our streets, but let’s not use a solution that ensures they go deaf while on the job or inhale particles — which might include lead. Worker conditions absolutely matter in this equation.

Really, when we try to solve a problem, we need to address it comprehensively, and not create more problems.

Hiring people to use brooms for sweeping and toting trash and recycling bins will enable them to sort recyclables that they find as litter. They will also be people on the street, who can interact with the residents and act as eyes on the street, which is good for crime prevention. This is all possible in a relatively quiet environment. Social interaction would be impossible on a street with very loud blowers and trash blowing everywhere.

Some neighborhoods have organized and set up their own street-cleaning programs. For example, according to a Billy Penn article, the Newbold Community Development Corporation hires people from Horizon House, which helps people dealing with addiction, homelessness, and developmental disabilities to clean their streets. They traverse the commercial corridor with brooms and trash bins, scooping up litter.

Where do our Council members stand on the subject of street cleaning?

Well, we called or emailed all of them to find out. I asked them (or their staff) for their position on street cleaning, and then specifically, about the use of blowers.

Interestingly, a couple of them had immediate thoughts on street cleaning, and all of the ones we reached definitely think the City should be cleaning our streets.

As for blowers, Helen Gym is concerned about the emissions from blowers and their effectiveness, and doesn’t yet have a position on moving cars for street cleaning.

Derek Green knows that best practices for cities includes street cleaning, and believes that it’s important to make our city clean and rid ourselves of the negative stereotype that we are a dirty city. Although he didn’t have specific concerns about blowers he believes we should be cleaning our streets in the most economical way possible and with the least impact on climate change; it should be a net-zero situation.

Councilmember Mark Squilla seems to be in support of our current street-cleaning situation. And lastly,

Councilmember David Oh feels like this blowing gives the illusion of work, but isn’t really cleaning. Using brooms or the small vacuum-style cleaners used by Center City District seem like a good idea, and residents should definitely be responsible for moving their cars. That’s how it used to be done here.

Leaf blowers in other cities

What have other cities done to address the noise, emissions, and airborne particles that come with using gas-powered leaf blowers? A few have banned them outright, and others have day-of-the-week and time restrictions Here are some examples:

In 2017, Maplewood, New Jersey, banned gas-powered leaf blowers used by commercial entities from May 15 to September 30. The rest of the year, there are day-and-time restrictions on use, for commercial and individual use.

Washington, D.C. voted in 2018 to a phase-out of gas-powered blowers, which will be fully in effect by 2022. Their main complaints were that there are now electric-powered blowers that don’t have the harmful emissions nor the high levels of noise of the gas-powered blowers. I guess they’re less worried about the airborne particles they’ll kick into the air with their electric blowers.

Only a few towns in California and Colorado have complete bans of gas-powered blowers. Restricting hours of use is a much more common practice across the US, wherever any restrictions exist.

News You Can Use

Last week, WHYY announced that the City of Philadelphia had purchased street sweepers it claimed were too large for our narrow streets. Urban planners in the online discussion group UrbanPHL did one big facepalm.

We’ve been discussing street cleaning for a few years, always with the notion that the cars would need to move in order to properly clean the streets. Perhaps this was also the intention of whomever chose these sweepers.

There’s no need to purchase new equipment. Just move the cars.

Engage with your Electeds 

If you’d like to share your thoughts about street cleaning with your Councilmember (and perhaps also with an at-large Councilmember), visit the Engage page on Philly Talks Climate  for more information.

Connect with Others Concerned About the Climate Crisis

On Saturday June 15th there will be a cleanup at Devil’s Pool along the Cresheim Creek, just above where it flows into the Wissahickon. It is one of the most beautiful places in the park. Because this is such a popular place, it is also where a lot of trash ends up, most notably — single use plastics. Join Friends of the Wissahickon in cleaning up Devil’s Pool. You’ll find details on the Connect page of Philly Talks Climate

Wading in cool water not your thing? Spend the day in Harrisburg with like-minded others, to lobby for a state powered 100% by renewable energy!  

Representative Chris Rabb and 68 others have re-introduced HB 2145 from last session as HB 1425. This is a state-level commitment to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. As you know, there are 6 states to date with such a commitment — Hawaii, then California, then Washington DC, then New Mexico, then Puerto Rico, and most recently — Nevada.

Buses are leaving Philly at 7am on Wednesday June 19th, and returning to Philly by 6pm. Details are on the Connect page of Philly Talks Climate.

You’ve been listening to Meenal & Tanya on Philly Talks Climate! Thanks for listening!


Dundee street cleaner – https://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/fp/calls-stop-cutting-dundee-street-cleaning-jobs/


Street Sweeper song – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yJTn-4YPHE


  • Jun 4, 2019, WHYY, $2.73 million later, Philly realizes street sweepers are too wide for city’s narrow blocks
    • The 10 new street sweepers purchased for the pilot program at a cost of $2.73 million
    • Each additional street sweeper would cost the city $250,000
    • the program’s baseline total for weekly trash collection is 10 tons.
    • Kensington – largest sweep zone in the pilot, it spans more than 200 blocks – two of the blocks has taken up to two hours so far during the pilot, officials said.
    • It found trucks did not sweep the program’s eight daytime routes 75% of the time. Regardless, the Philadelphia Parking Authority ticketed residents for not moving their cars during designated street sweeping days.
  • Jun 1, 2019, The Shuttle, Eco Tip — Hazardous to Your Health: Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers
    • A 2011 study found that a two-stroke commercial leaf blower produces as many hydrocarbon emissions in 30 minutes as an F-150 pickup truck driving 3,887 miles!
    • In March, Washington, DC announced a phase-out of these destructive and obsolete tools — obsolete because there are battery-powered alternatives that are quieter and dramatically less polluting. Other cities that have introduced bans or restrictions include Los Angeles, Houston, Tampa and Toronto.
    • Instead of sweeper trucks and leaf blowers, why not hire 50 people to sweep the neighborhoods? It’d be quieter, we wouldn’t be using fossil fuels, we wouldn’t be blowing debris back into the air we breathe, and… oh yeah, we’d employ 50 people. Let’s invest in people, not diesel- and gas-powered equipment.
  • Apr 17, 2019 Philly Voice, Philly launches mechanical street cleaning pilot in six neighborhoods
    • $2.3 million annual investment in street cleaning
  • Apr 17, 2019, Billy Penn, Philadelphia’s new version of street sweeping is…dusty
    • Newbold – In 2015, this South Philly neighborhood founded a street cleaning program that employs folks from the Philly behavioral health nonprofit Horizon House — folks with addiction, developmental disabilities or those who’ve experienced homelessness. The trash collectors traverse the neighborhood with brooms and trash bins in tow, scooping up the litter they see.


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