What We’ve Done/Where We’re Headed

The State of Philly Recycling – Winter 2013:
Things are looking up, but uncertain.

Where We’ve Been:

  • The Campaign. Since its creation in 2005, the RecycleNOW Philadelphia campaign has collected 12,000 petition signatures, spearheaded the city council hearing on recycling in February 2007, and helped foster an unprecedented environmental awareness in city government and politics.
  • Nutter’s 5 Point Pledge. During the 2007 mayoral campaign Michael Nutter, along with other major candidates, endorsed RecycleNOW’s 5 point agenda calling on the mayor to be the official voice and champion of recycling, initiate a national search to hire qualified personnel for key recycling jobs, re-task and reorganize the recycling and solid waste advisory boards, create a comprehensive plan for waste and recycling, and provide the financing to implement the plan.
  • Expanded recycling. Mayor Nutter deserves great credit for growing the Philadelphia recycling program through the financial uncertainty of the Great Recession. Through the budget and commodity prices crisis, Nutter recognized that even in tough times recycling makes economic and environmental sense.
  • Citywide, weekly, expanded materials, single-stream recycling collection. Mayor Nutter followed through on his promise to greatly expand Philadelphia’s recycling program, including the addition of cardboard, cartons and nearly all rigid plastics #1-7, and bring it up to par with other recycling programs around the country.
  • Philadelphia Recycling Rewards program. In place for nearly four years, the Philadelphia Recycling Rewards program powered by Recyclebank increased recycling rates by offering rewards to households for recycling and reducing waste. Points can be redeemed for discount coupons and freebies to many local retailers, and donations to “Green Schools” projects.

Where We Stand:

  • 20%. A year after the Nutter Administration’s benchmark of 2011, Philadelphia finally topped the 20% threshold in the first quarter of the 2013 fiscal year with a 20.4% curbside recycling rate. The city pledged to reach 25% by 2015, but it is unclear how they intend to do so.
  • A New Recycling Coordinator.The city’s 3rd recycling coordinator in 3 years, Phil Bresee brings new energy to the position and looks to reinvigorate a moribund recycling office and planning process.
  • Experiments with New Waste Technology. Over the past year, the city has looked to innovate and move towards non-traditional solid waste solutions. One potential solution for food waste is a garbage disposer program being piloted in two neighborhoods. But more significantly, a privately operated facility in Northeast Philadelphia is slated to open in 2013 and process trash into burnable pellets to be used as industrial fuel.
  • 24%. Completed in late 2011, a waste composition study commissioned by the city shows that 24% of the city’s curbside collected waste is recyclable using currently available processing facilities. While a 20% recycling diversion rate means that the city is capturing 4/5s of the potential recyclables, it will be impossible to meet the city’s stated goal of a 25% recycling rate by 2015 unless significant changes are made.

Where We Need to Go:

  • Organics. Food and yard waste represents 20% of our total waste, and most of it in Philadelphia is sent to a landfill. There, organics break down anaerobically and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. To realize Mayor Nutter’s ambition for Philadelphia to become America’s greenest city and compete with the leading recycling cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle, recycling organics is a must.
  • Waste Reduction and Diversion. The city collects tons of waste it should not. Though it is against city regulations to collect building (construction & demolition) waste, over 20% of what city refuse trucks collect is C&D waste. Not only should those materials be recycled via a separate, privately collected system, but taxpayers are footing the bill to dispose of the illegally collected waste. Other materials like textiles (5.5% of the waste) and electronics (1.5%) should be diverted towards proper recycling, and in many cases, reuse.
  • MORE Philadelphians Recycling MORE. Make sure every household has the proper information and a recycling bin in order to increase the recycling participation rate. Enforce the law and ensure that every apartment, condo, office, school, and civic building recycles. Recycling is not just for those who live in single-family buildings! Every street corner with a trash bin should have a recycling bin. Expand the sanitation drop off sites and turn them into true recycling centers that also accept yard waste and hard-to-recycle items like batteries, light bulbs, textiles, recorded media devices, and more. Commendably, these sites already accept all recyclables currently collected at the curb, plus electronics, styrofoam, bulk metal items, auto tires, and Christmas trees.
  • Make Recycling Gains Permanent. Mayor Nutter can reinvigorate the governmental structure behind recycling through an expanded Recycling Office, invigorated advisory and oversight body, and updated recycling ordinance. Recycling Office staffing is a fraction of what it used to be. More resources allocated to recycling means a higher diversion rate and more taxpayer money saved.
    Though the Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Committee (SWRAC) continues to informally meet, the body has been without official membership for 4 years as the administration ignores its expertise on solid waste planning matters.

    Lastly, Philadelphia must update its 20 year old recycling ordinance to continue to make recycling the law as well as reflect present recycling trends (single stream recycling is illegal under the law as it is currently written). Mayor Nutter’s call for open, transparent and responsive government appears empty if structural changes to recycling governance are not made.

  • Zero Waste. RecycleNOW advocates a concept that every forward-thinking, sustainable city must examine: a system where all discarded materials are resources for others to use. It means recycling and reusing all materials, as well as better product design to recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. As they say, if you are not for zero waste, how much waste are you for?

What We Can Do:

  • Demand More Recycling. Check out www.recyclenowphila.org and get educated. Enroll your neighbor in the Philadelphia Recycling Rewards Program. Talk to your councilpersons and tell them recycling is important to you. Lead by example, help fight global warming, and start composting in your backyard. Check out www.phillycompost.com and join a composting program or share yours with others. And most importantly – continue to flood Mayor Nutter with questions about recycling and press him on the city’s plan to improve recycling in Philadelphia.