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[greenyes] Philadelphia's recycling program has the blues

>From the Philadelphia Daily News, Mon, Aug. 22, 2005

Recycling down despite success with pilot
City: Collections dropped by 3,000 tons for year


THE CITY'S lagging residential recycling rate has slipped even further into
the cellar, in spite of an experiment that is bringing new excitement to
pockets of Northwest Philadelphia.

Although recycling bins are filling to higher levels in parts of West Oak
Lane and Chestnut Hill, the city's overall recycling collections dropped by
3,000 tons in the year that ended June 30, according to Streets Commissioner
Clarena Tolson.

Philadelphians recycled only an average 5.5 percent of their household trash
- about half a percent lower than the level at which the recycling program
had stalled for years. That's 41,000 tons recycled out of a total 756,000
tons of household waste picked up by city trucks.

That news comes less than two weeks after a report by the city controller
that was critical of the recycling program - and the unrelated indictment
and firing of the city recycling director.

Despite the tantalizing potential of the small experimental project, the
17-year-old city program is beset by the same old arguments about what
works, what recycling costs and what to do next.

"Our mission is certainly to improve these numbers from where we are," said
Tolson. Beyond the outright drop in recycling tonnage, she said, the Streets
Department actually collected more trash in this past fiscal year than
previously, helping to shrink the recycled share.

If there's any agreement about recycling in Philadelphia, it's that
collections need to grow. Despite a goal of 50 percent in the original
recycling ordinance - later reduced to at least 35 percent - the city has
never recycled more than 7 percent of household trash. Many other cities,
and neighboring suburbs, have done better.

"Recycling done properly is the best of both worlds," said City Controller
Jonathan A. Saidel. "The city saves money and does something for the
environment and the people of Philadelphia at the same time."

With a goal of 50 percent and a longstanding stalemate at 6 percent, Saidel
demanded, "Where has the government been?"

Saidel, considered a likely mayoral candidate, contends the city could
recycle at least 35 percent of the household trash for an annual savings of
$17 million.

He and recycling advocates point to the $58 or so spent to dump each ton of
trash at a landfill as a source of mega-savings. They maintain the city
could save millions by such steps as enforcing the recycling ordinance;
picking up additional materials, such as plastic, heavy cardboard and yard
waste; and extending weekly recycling pickups across the city, where many
neighborhoods still recycle every other week.

"We've been saying that for years," said Emily Linn of the Recycling
Alliance of Philadelphia, the coalition that prompted Saidel to examine the
city program.

But the Streets Department insists it isn't all that simple. Officials say
it costs more to collect recyclables than trash, potentially cancelling out
future savings on landfill costs.

That debate has been going on for years. The city is now using compactor
trucks - the kind used for trash collection - in parts of Northwest
Philadelphia to see if recycling costs less when all the materials are
picked up in a "single stream," meaning in one bin, rather than by
separating paper from bottles and cans.

The more intriguing part of the pilot, however, is a rewards system for
recyclers in about 2,500 homes - less than half a percent of the homes on
city recycling routes.

"They've done a wonderful job, and they've been great partners. The pilot is
very successful," said Tolson, speaking of RecycleBank, the start-up company
that has provided 35-gallon bins and weighing devices for free for the past
few months. "The issue will be, as we replicate this in a more real-world
environment, can we replicate that success?"

Saidel and Linn acknowledged that, despite the appeal of rewards coupons -
worth up to about $30 a month in discounts, based on pounds recycled -
incentives might need to be employed as a short-term tactic, rather than a
permanent feature. But right now, the program is so popular that people are
recycling more and they're recycling more often.

In the pilot areas, the amount collected per household each week has at
least tripled, said Patrick FitzGerald, president of RecycleBank. In
Chestnut Hill, where a typical household would set out 10 pounds of
recyclables weekly before the program, people now put out an average of 30

And in West Oak Lane, where recycling was almost flat-lining at three to
five pounds, people are now putting out 18 to 20 pounds a week on the
special routes, he said. That project area includes a small number of homes
in Mount Airy and Germantown.

"To us, that's the true meaning of success right there," FitzGerald said.

This week, he said, he's sending the city a proposal to continue the project
beyond its end-of-August expiration date - and expand it citywide. This
time, it wouldn't be free, he said, but he contended that landfill savings
would pay for it. The city's collection costs, however, wouldn't be
considered in calculating savings.

"I think the residents of Philadelphia are looking for a rewarding way to
recycle and an easy way to recycle. And this enables them to have an easy
way to recycle, and one that is personally rewarding and supports local
businesses," he said.

Tolson said the city will have to evaluate the program before deciding where
to go with it, and will have to consider how to handle any change in
recycling processing fees. Currently, Blue Mountain Recycling in South
Philadelphia is cutting the city a break by continuing to pay the city as
much for recyclable paper as it did before it installed expensive processing
equipment to handle all recyclables in a single stream. (The city is reaping
about $1 million a year by marketing its recyclables.)

Meanwhile, David Robinson, the fired recycling director who had boosted the
pilot as a potential way to "revolutionize recycling," faces charges in U.S.
District Court. He pleaded not guilty Aug. 9 to conspiracy to defraud the
government in connection with birthday and retirement parties staged for a
former streets commissioner, allegedly with government funds.

Streets Commissioner Tolson was reported to be the official who spotted
wrongdoing and alerted the city inspector general.


Jennifer Gitlitz
Research Director, Container Recycling Institute

Home Office:
2 Pomeroy Ave.
Dalton, MA 01226
Tel. (413) 684-4746
Mobile: (413) 822-0115
Fax: (413) 403-0233
Email: jgitlitz@no.address

Please note the new address for CRI¹s main office:
Container Recycling Institute
1601 North Kent St., Suite 803
Arlington, VA 22209-2105
Tel. (703) 276-9800
Fax: (703) 276-9587

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