Who better to learn from than a sanitation worker who was on the frontlines during the pandemic? This is a true behind-the-scenes look at how one sanitation worker can make a difference.
Meet Terrill Haigler, who served as a sanitation worker for The City of Philadelphia’s Sanitation Division, which collects waste and recycling from 540,000+ households.
During his stint at the Sanitation Division, Terrill launched his Instagram account “Ya Fav Trashman,” which now has nearly 30,000 followers.
I spoke with Terrill about how his humble social media presence has turned into an amazing grassroots platform to advocate for sanitation workers, the power of civic engagement, and more.
Here is a glimpse at what he shared:
Waste360: How did you become a sanitation worker in Philly?
Haigler: I applied for the job in 2017, and at that time the wait list was like 2,000 people and I was number 782. In 2019, I got an email and a letter saying that my number was being called—and if I was still interested, I could come down, take a drug test, and get started. There wasn’t a big, “oh I love sanitation; it was: it’s a city job, W-2, benefits,” so that was the motivation. My first day was December 30, 2019—and, as you know, three months later, “Corona” showed her face and never left.
Waste360: Wow. So how did things go during the pandemic? I know Philly was hit particularly hard.
Haigler: The first week we shut down in March, it took us about two weeks to realize there were an extra six or seven bags per house. Usually you get through your route from 7:00am-3:00pm, and we were noticing that we’d be halfway through the route, and we’d look at the time, and it was 1:30 or 2:00pm! You would see a block, and you couldn’t even see the trees; you’d just see trash bags. We had major delays, and there were lots of articles coming out: “it’s the sanitation workers’ fault; they’re lazy; they’re not coming to work…” and I was like, “hey guys, we’re really trying here.” I don’t like to get blamed for something I didn’t do, so I was like “what can we do?”
In the summer, things were getting worse, and on June 17th, I decided to create “Ya Fav Trashman” as an Instagram account, solely for the purpose of giving people an inside look at what it’s like to be a sanitation worker and to show people what we’re actually dealing with.
No one knew, at that time, 200+ sanitation workers had tested positive or were quarantined. There’s only 1,400 sanitation workers in Philadelphia…you take away 200+, that’s a lot. So I wanted to share information with the public that they didn’t know and maybe bridge the gap between the department and the residents. And maybe the residents could help us do our jobs better.
Waste360: Your Instagram started a grassroots movement. And now, through your community clean-ups and other advocacy work, you are really helping people have pride in their communities and stoking the fire…
Haigler: That’s the whole goal. When you talk about Philadelphia, you gotta talk about the gun violence, you gotta talk about the drugs…the opiod epidemic…but I believe all of that can be addressed if we just pick up the trash first.
Because what people do is they use the trash on the ground and how dirty the city is as a crutch. Once you take the crutch away, it’s time to do the work; you have nothing else to lean on. So I want to remove the crutch of trash, of litter, of illegal dumping, and now we can go to these elected officials and go, “ There’s no more trash on the ground. So what are you going to do about these other problems now?”
Waste360: Finally, what would you love to see happen as your ultimate goal?
Haigler: My ultimate goal is always going to be to see sanitation workers get hazard pay, to see their wages get raised… They deserve top-of-the-line benefits. And once all that is done, I would love to get a Ya Fav Trashman chapter in every single major city in the country. And then I would love to tour the country and talk and advocate about how sanitation and politics are a lot closer than most people think. And how, if you marry the two, your city can literally change.