Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philadelphia improves its recycling program

The city's long-lambasted recycling program, once one of the worst among the nation's major cities, got another boost yesterday with the beginning of citywide weekly curbside pickup.

The city's long-lambasted recycling program, once one of the worst among the nation's major cities, got another boost yesterday with the beginning of citywide weekly curbside pickup.

No longer will residents, most of whom had recyclables picked up every other week, have to remember which are recycling weeks. Bottles, cans, papers and other recyclables can go out on the same day as the other trash, just in a separate bin.

Recycling advocates were jubilant, praising Mayor Nutter not only for following through on his campaign promise to increase recycling, but also for doing so in the face of plummeting prices for commodities.

With the global economy slowing and demand for materials drying up, prices for some commodities have fallen to a fraction of what they were just a few months ago.

In the last quarter of 2008, the city was getting $44 a ton - an all-time high - for the recyclables it collected. Projections for this quarter, said Deputy Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams, are that the city will have to pay $32 a ton to recycle those same commodities.

But that's still not as expensive as landfilling it, which costs $63 per ton.

Bob Anderson, business development director for FCR Recycling, whose Blue Mountain facility sorts Philadelphia's recyclables, said some communities are taking a second look at their programs. And some are deciding to scale back.

"The Nutter administration needs to be applauded and congratulated for making this expansion at a time when commodity markets are very challenged," he said.

"We think that's the right way to go," said Ed Skernolis, director of policy and programs for National Recycling Council, a nonprofit advocacy and resource group in Washington.

"It still makes sense to continue or expand recycling programs," he said. "Commodity prices will recover, and you want to be in a position where you can take advantage of that."

The city's recycling rate - the percentage of waste diverted for recycling - was 6 percent just a few years ago.

Moving to single-stream collection, where all the items can be placed in one bin - instead of separating the paper, for instance, from the glass - increased the rate to its current 10.4 percent.

But a major complaint from residents was that with biweekly collection, they couldn't keep track of when to put out the recyclables.

The goal is to reach 11 percent by June 30, but Williams said he expected the city to beat that expectation with weekly pickups. Some of the city's highest rates are in Center City and Mt. Airy, which have long had weekly pickups. He projected that within a year, the recycling rate would be 18 to 20 percent.

That's still less than half the rate of leading U.S. cities.

To get ready for the transition, Philadelphia purchased 23 additional compactor trucks last year, at a cost of about $150,000 per truck. The recycling trucks look the same as the trash trucks, however, leading some residents to conclude their recyclables aren't being handled properly.

Williams said the city's mural arts program has already painted some recycling trucks to distinguish them, and the rest should be finished by spring.

FCR is ready for whatever the city can collect, Anderson said. Blue Mountain underwent a $3.4 million upgrade in 2008. The city's recyclables - currently 220 tons a day - are now sorted mechanically instead of by hand.

Maurice Sampson II, chair of RecycleNOW Philadelphia and a frequent critic of the city's recycling efforts, said he was happy with the expanded program. "I've never seen a streets department so charged. Carlton Williams is becoming my hero."

But he couldn't resist one jab: "It's about time. Now we're trying to catch up to where we should have been 20 years ago."

There's still a long way to go. Los Angeles, with a recycling rate of 50 percent, is the gold standard of programs, he said.

Sampson doesn't think Philadelphia will get anywhere close to that until it automates collections - instead of having workers lift and dump each bin individually - and adds organics such as yard and food waste to the items that can be recycled.

But with weekly pickup, he said, "the opportunity is now there, and now it's really on the public to take advantage of it. They've done their part, now let's see what we can do."