Environmental groups have been talking plenty of trash in recent days, as City Council prepares to vote Thursday on a $256 million city waste-management contract that would set the course for how the city deals with its refuse for the next seven years.
The cornerstone of the new contracts is a plan to send trash to a proposed $22?million Waste Management facility in Northeast Philadelphia. There, it would be sorted, with the bulk of it being made into pellets that could be burned in coal-fired power plants and other industrial boilers.
Aghast at what seemed a further embrace of incineration, when recycling and reducing waste are considered the gold standard, environmental advocates pressured Council members to stall.
Streets Commissioner Clarena I.W. Tolson hastily convened a meeting Wednesday afternoon, telling the environmental groups she hoped they could find some middle ground. She said the new plan, which would save the city $69 million in disposal costs over seven years, was both fiscally and environmentally sound.
After learning more details about the plan and the pellets, some cautiously tempered their criticism.
But many still believed that the city had blundered by not including environmental groups — or even its own advisory committee — in the process.
"Some of the questions they put to rest. A lot of the questions remain unanswered, and probably will remain unanswered until we have data from this new facility and until the city completes its plan for how we reduce and recycle at the front end," said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment.
"We're still pretty skeptical," said Brady Russell, eastern Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action. "It did sound like there was a lot of compelling technology, but it just doesn't seem accidental, either, that the administration took this long to talk to environmental groups in the city."
He said that things were "too rushed" for him to properly assess the plan, and that he would still push for City Council to delay a vote.
The Clean Air Council has a seat on the city's solid waste and recycling advisory committee, and the council's executive director, Joseph O. Minott, criticized what he sees as "a habit of circumventing the committee when it comes to any serious input. I find that both shortsighted and, frankly, insulting. These people are really knowledgeable. The department would have gotten good feedback and would have avoided this brouhaha."
Instead, a few weeks ago the city unveiled the plan to a hand-picked group that included solid waste expert Maurice Sampson II, University of Pennsylvania sustainability coordinator Dan Garofalo, city sustainability director Katherine Gajewski, Andrew Sharp of PennFuture, and Bob Anderson of the recycling firm ReCommunity.
PennFuture energy specialist Christina Simeone said at Wednesday's briefing that the plan was "a good project for the city, a good project for a progressive company" and praised it as "innovative."
Waste Management has one similar facility, which began operation in October in San Antonio, Texas.
Waste Management spokesman John Hambrose said the new facility, which would be finished in 2013, adjacent to the building where it sorts the city's recycling stream, would generate 25 new jobs and bring an additional $1.5 million to the city in payroll, real estate, and other taxes.
The city's household recycling rate has increased from 6 percent to about 20 percent in the last five years.
The city still plans to send at least 550 tons of refuse a day to Covanta's transfer stations, after which it would be incinerated in Covanta's facilities in Chester and Plymouth Meeting.
The city would send at least 1,750 tons a day to Waste Management's transfer stations; 500 to 1,200 tons of it would enter the new plant.
Metals, other recyclables, and PVC plastic would be pulled out, with the rest — predominantly plastic that is not easily recycled and paper or cardboard that is too contaminated to be recycled — being made into pellets. "Organics," such as food waste, also would be pulled out of the stream, and although company representatives said they hoped to compost it, no final plan is in place.
At Wednesday's meeting, Tolson passed around a jar of the greenish pellets — which she jokingly compared to "goose turds" — and said that the city remains committed to waste reduction and recycling.
"This is not where we want to be for the rest of eternity," she said, calling the proposed plan "a stepping stone to the next level."
While the refuse companies want specified minimum amounts of material, the city has incorporated ways to reduce this each year, as recycling increases, she said.
The city also sees a benefit to turning some of its non-recyclable waste into energy, rather than landfilling it.
Sampson, president of Niche Recycling Inc., said he thought the city had done a good job. "Bottom line, this is a good contract."
He called Tolson "a tough negotiator, a shrewd negotiator."
But he, too, saw a problem in "the style of the administration to do everything so close and in such secrecy that, in this case, even though they have what I think is a good deal, no one trusts the outcome."
The contracts are for four years, with three annual renewal options at the end.