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Image: Clean Water Action’s Zero Waste Specialist, Mercedes Forsyth, working with Alif Brew & Mini Mart to reduce their trash from single-use foodware items.

Philadelphia’s History with Trash and Litter 

Residents of Philadelphia are no strangers to the city’s trash and litter problem. For decades, residents have dealt with litter in their neighborhood streets. More recently, delays in trash pickup, the lack of collection sites across the city, and extensive illegal dumping have only compounded this problem. These conditions result in a reduced quality of life, disruption of our neighborhoods, and the degradation of our planet. 

In a 2020 study conducted by the Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful initiative and consulting firm Burns & McDonnell, it was revealed that Philadelphia allocates a staggering $48 million to address its trash management challenges. This figure stands in stark contrast to Pittsburgh's $6 million expenditure. While Philadelphia's population is only five times larger than Pittsburgh's, its expenditure on trash management is eight times greater, highlighting a significant disparity between the two cities. 

Despite both cities allocating approximately $3 million towards litter and dumping prevention efforts, Philadelphia's additional $42 million expenditure on clean-up initiatives highlights the city’s need for measures outside of trash prevention.  

Collaborating with Local Groups to Make a Difference  

Several local groups are taking actions that will result in a cleaner Philadelphia. Our organization, Clean Water Action, worked to write and pass the Plastic Bag Ban in 2019, and are now looking to improve that policy by passing a Bring Your Own Bag Bill, that’ll add a 15-cent fee on all single-use bags. We also cofounded a coalition called "Clean Philadelphia NOW" with Trash Academy to put an end to illegal dumping in Philadelphia by 2028. Several community members also take it upon themselves to organize regular community clean ups in their neighborhood and across the city. Two notable mentions include Aminata Sandra Calhoun, a West Philly resident and environmental justice activist, and Terrill Haigler, also known as YaFavTrashman.  

ReThink Disposable Participating Business - Reducing Waste, Saving Money, Going Green

An exciting new project entering the city... ReThink Disposable  

Thanks to fiscal support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Plastic Free Restaurants, a new waste reduction program called ReThink Disposable has made its way to Philadelphia and is playing a new and essential part in helping reduce trash and litter in the city. This is a program of Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund that was first started in Oakland, California in 2011 with a mission to Stop Trash Before It Starts. This is achieved by working with local businesses, governments, and institutions to shift away from single use foodware and the “throwaway” lifestyle to pursue reusable alternatives. Before expanding to 6 additional states in 2023,  ReThink Disposable California had already worked with over 500 local businesses and reduced over 20 million pieces of single use trash annually. This is the expertise we are building on to bring the program to Philadelphia. 

Our Impact so Far 

As Clean Water Action’s Zero Waste Specialist, I lead the ReThink Disposable campaign in Philadelphia. Within the first few months of the program, we’ve begun working with 12 restaurants to reduce their trash from single use foodware items. Each restaurant in the program is projected to reduce 110,000 pieces of single-use trash annually, while saving $2,000 to $23,000 per year. 

Participating Restaurant Locations  

Center City 

  • Jean’s Café - 1334 Walnut St
  • Koreana Rittenhouse Square - 37 S 19th St 

South-West Philly 

  • Lee’s Deli - 4700 Baltimore Ave 
  • Desi Village - 4527 Baltimore Ave 
  • Alif Brew and Mini Mart - 4501 Baltimore Ave 
  • Fiesta Pizza - 4518 Baltimore Ave 

West Philly 

  • Deja Vu Bar & Grill - 100 N 53rd St 
  • Greedy’s - 5100 Market St  


  • Salam Cafe and Market - 5532 Greene St 

South Philly 

  • LUVH Vegan Deli - 1131 S 19th St 

Hatboro, PA 

  • LUHV Vegan Deli - 101 N York Rd 

Of the first 12 participants, 11 have made switches to reusable foodware for dine-in customers, 1 has reduced paper packaging in all dine-in meals, and 4 are interested in exploring reusable containers for takeout. 

Changes Made 

During my first week in Philly back in September 2023, I noticed the popular breakfast and lunch spot right by Clean Water Action’s office, “Jean’s Cafe,” was serving food completely in single use items, even for dine-in customers. This restaurant, owned and managed by John Yoo, soon became one of the first participating restaurants in the program. When you stop in the restaurant now, your meal is served completely in reusable foodware.  

Image of Jean's restaurant in Philly with a before and after photo of trash and resusables after switching to ReThink Disposable

Due to the success of the program at “Jean’s Cafe,” Yoo’s second restaurant, “Koreana Rittenhouse Square,” also signed up for ReThink Disposable. This location switched from wooden to stainless steel chopsticks and started serving “Cup Bap” in ceramic bowls instead of poly-lined paper cups.  

Goenawan Liao, manager at Koreana, said that customers really like the ceramic bowls. Some even ask, “Where did you buy these?” Liao said that this transition has saved the restaurant “a lot of money.”  

Image of a before and after image of single use throwaway service ware and resuables at Koreana's after switching to ReThink Disposable

Even small changes make a big difference. Hayat Ali, owner of “Alif Brew and Mini Mart” and “Salam Cafe and Market” switched both restaurants from serving drinks in single use plastic cups to reusables glasses. Ali said that this transition “worked perfectly” at her restaurants. As an owner who already makes sustainable choices, she expressed how happy she was that programs like ReThink Disposable exist to point out simple changes that she wouldn’t have thought of on her own.  

Image of a before and after image of single use throwaway service ware and resuables at Alif's after switching to ReThink Disposable

We are currently working with LUHV Vegan Deli to build upon their current sustainability efforts. This local deli, owned by Silvia Lucci, already has started practices in reuse, recycling, and composting. We have worked together to reduce the paper wrapping around several of their products, to make their meals completely trash-free. The owner and I are now exploring options to make her takeout business more eco-friendly, as well.  

Image of a before and after image of single use throwaway service ware and resuables at a vegan deli after switching to ReThink Disposable

Next Steps for ReThink Disposable 

As incredible as these projects are, this is only the beginning for ReThink Disposable in Philadelphia. Our goal for the next year is to continue to sign up two new restaurants per month. While our focus so far has been reusables for dine-in, we are working to build partnerships with companies with a focus on reuse for takeout, so we can increase our reach and impact on plastic pollution. The companies we are currently building relationships with are ECHO Systems, PlanetOzzi, ReDish, and Foreverware. We plan to build upon the knowledge of Tiffin Indian’s reusable takeout container programs in Philadelphia and surrounding towns to make reuse for takeout a common process in the city.  

In addition to working with restaurants, several ReThink Disposable programs across the country have started reducing single use waste in different types of establishments, including schools, colleges, event spaces, and emergency food relief institutions. We have a goal of moving in that direction in Philadelphia, as well.  

Get Involved 

We’re always searching for the next business who wants to ReThink their waste management. If you’re a restaurant owner, caterer, event host, café manager or run an institutional kitchen or food court, ReThink Disposable can help. Contact Mercedes Forsyth or fill out our interest form here.  

We are also looking for additional funding to provide services and reusable foodware to more food service establishments. $300 could allow our team to fully fund a restaurant's transition to reusable foodware or $36 help our team get a restaurant started with reusable silverware. Support our future projects by donating here

You can also follow along with our journey through our social media pages. Our Instagram accounts are @thefutureisreusable and @cleanwaterpa, our Facebook pages are Clean Water Action PA and ReThink Disposable, and our Twitter/X is @CleanH2OPA

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