HOW @_YAFAVTRASHMAN LAUNCHED A MOVEMENT IN PHILADELPHIA TO #SUPPORTSANITATION
Terrill Haigler didn't set out to be an evangelist for sanitation workers. But when COVID-19 made his job as a trashman increasingly difficult and dangerous last year, he knew someone had to speak up. When his Instagram account, @_yafavtrashman, took the internet by storm, Haigler found his calling in the most unexpected places: on the curbs of Philadelphia.
Cleaning up from COVID-19
Haigler had been on a waiting list for nearly two years to get a job as a sanitation worker in the Philadelphia Streets Department when he finally got the call and started work on December 30, 2019. Because it was a city job, he expected job security, good benefits, and a livable wage. But a few months into the new gig, as the pandemic swept through the country, he felt scared—and exhausted.
In the shadow of a deadly virus, a starting salary of $31,000 felt like an affront. Especially when he realized the gravity of the job's conditions: he and his colleagues weren't provided with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), and they were struggling to handle the increasing volume of trash. Stay-at-home orders—and the rash of home improvement projects that followed—led to a trash increase of more than 25 percent, and it quickly took its toll.
"Where we could do 40 blocks in an eight-hour span in the past, in March , we'd get to six-and-a-half hours and we were only like 22 blocks in, because there was so much trash," says Haigler.
Matters got worse when sanitation workers—who sit just inches apart in a truck, sweating in the summer heat—started getting sick. At one point last summer, nearly 200 of the city's 1,200 sanitation workers were either infected with COVID-19 or quarantining, because one of their crew members was sick.
With workers down and trash volume up, they fell days behind in trash pickup. The media—and the residents impacted by the backup—were not understanding. "We were just getting the blame left and right. There were like four or five articles blaming the sanitation workers. There was no one speaking for us," says Haigler. "So I had to tell the truth."
Taking a stand for sanitation
On June 17, 2020, Haigler started @_yafavtrashman on Instagram. As someone fairly new to the job, he still had a fresh perspective and wanted people to understand what sanitation workers deal with every single day, including used tissues, soiled diapers, and all kinds of other unmentionable biohazards—all in the midst of a potentially life-threatening pandemic.
On top of that, Haigler and his colleagues had their own personal challenges to contend with. "People think trash collectors are robots. We just pick up the trash and keep it moving. They don't think we deal with anything in life. They don't think we have feelings. They don't know we have kids and we deal with death like everyone else," he says.
The Instagram account started with on-the-job photos and quickly reacted to what the audience wanted to see, like video updates informing Philadelphians about trash delays they could expect that week. "In the real world, it's Thursday, and in the trash world, it's Monday," Haigler shares as an example. He also started sharing advice about how the public could help speed things along for sanitation, like tying flat shipping boxes together for collection. Haigler also publicly advocated for city sanitation workers to receive hazard pay.
In July, when Haigler and his colleagues were still in need of proper PPE, he started selling @_yafavtrashman branded #SupportSanitation t-shirts and raised $32,000 to buy protection and cleaning supplies for his colleagues. Within just a few months, his follower numbers shot up to more than 24,000. DMs poured in simply to say "Thank you"—a marked change from the anger coming from Philadelphians just weeks before.
Turning trash into treasure
As Haigler's message spread across the city, he became something of a local celebrity. He started coordinating Philadelphia community cleanups every couple of weeks, inviting people to join in and improve their own neighborhoods. Area politicians began participating in the events, seeking to beautify their own districts. Beneath the trash, the cleanups—which often include food, drinks, and music—have brought communities together, as neighbors meet neighbors on common ground with shared goals.
Haigler watched it all transpire in awe. With his voice growing stronger and louder, he felt a calling to do more. So, he left his sanitation job in February 2021 and is using what he learned during his time as a trashman as a springboard to make a broader impact on society. "I want to change the world," he says. "If I can get the country to care about sanitation workers, what do you think we can do to get them to care about other people?"
Now, rather than literally cleaning up the streets, he's focusing on cleaning up the community through different avenues of outreach, including civic engagement, fundraising, and even political consulting. A marketing and communications manager helps him maintain his brand as his audience continues to grow, following appearances on The Kelly Clarkson Show, Good Morning America, and World News Tonight with David Muir.
Corporate sponsors have donated garbage cans and sweeping supplies and provided support to help Haigler pursue his #SupportSanitation mission. He recently launched a podcast and is working on a coloring book for kids. And, he's dreaming up plans for so much more—more community cleanups, voter registration drives, job fairs, mentorship programs, and maybe even a non-profit. All thanks to the impact of @_yafavtrashman.
When Haigler reflects on a year filled with ups and downs, his mind goes back to his source of inspiration: his mother. "She always said to me, why be good at a lot of things when you can be great at one thing?" he says.
"Sanitation seems to be my calling. So, I'll be great at sanitation and I'll use it as a vehicle to help everything else."