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Philly businesses aren't recycling, and the city could be losing out on millions

More than two decades after Philadelphia first passed laws requiring businesses to recycle, there's little evidence the city is doing much to enforce the laws or to keep track of how many properties are complying with them, according to a review of records and data by the Inquirer and Daily News.

Nonrecyclables are separated out from recyclable materials at a waste-management plant in the Northeast.
Nonrecyclables are separated out from recyclable materials at a waste-management plant in the Northeast.Read moreStaff file

If you live in Philadelphia, you know you have to put plastic, paper, glass, cans — all the traditional recyclables — in that familiar blue bin.

But your office building or favorite store or lunch spot might not do the same.

More than two decades after Philadelphia first passed ordinances requiring businesses to recycle, there's little evidence the city is doing much to enforce the laws or keep track of how many properties are complying with them, according to a review of records and data by the Inquirer and Daily News.


• Nearly 40,000 business properties, or four-fifths of those operating in Philadelphia, have not filed required recycling plans with the city.

• The city's database of those that have contains thousands of duplicate records, as well as outdated or missing property information.

• Streets officials don't keep track of how many properties in the database have been inspected.

• One-third of the inspector positions in the Streets Department are vacant.

• The city has, on average, issued three recycling citations a day for commercial properties over the last nine years, yet collected only $108,000 in fines. By contrast, homeowners paid more than $3.7 million in fines in the same stretch, with inspectors handing out an average of 51 tickets a day.

The data also show that on average, nearly every visit to a business by an inspector has uncovered a recycling violation. But last year, Streets workers inspected only 782 businesses, which means the city could be losing out on at least tens of millions of dollars in revenue from fines each year.

City officials say they suspect there may be many businesses that recycle but haven't filed plans. Data from haulers shows that about 50 percent of the waste generated by the city's commercial properties gets recycled. But without the inspections or a complete database, no one really knows.

And as the Kenney administration works to fulfill a pledge to make Philadelphia "zero-waste" by 2035, experts say commercial recycling has fallen by the wayside, potentially jeopardizing the mayor's goal.

"Obviously, we'd like to see more businesses in compliance," said Carlton Williams, commissioner of the Streets Department. But as with so many initiatives, Williams said, city workers lack the time and resources to fully enforce the law. The focus instead is on education over enforcement, and the 42 inspectors often simply give warnings when they spot a commercial violator.

Told about the newspapers' findings, David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment and chair of Kenney's transition team on the environment and sustainability, said he wasn't surprised. He said many buildings don't recycle and others seem to pretend to do so, collecting recyclables in blue bins but then depositing them in trash dumpsters.

"It [is] a little bit of the wild, wild West," Masur said Thursday. "They come out with a zero-waste plan, and it's great to do that, but… if you don't move quickly on this commercial issue, it's hard to envision how you get to zero."

In the review, the Inquirer and Daily News found familiar companies among those with no recycling plans on file: the Tasty Baking Co. building, Three Logan Square on Arch Street, and the former Strawbridge & Clothier building on Market Street — which houses the offices of the newspapers.

Then there are companies such as Wawa: The ubiquitous chain recycled 930 tons of required recyclables from its 39 Philadelphia stores in 2016, a Wawa spokeswoman said. But the city's database is missing some stores, has wrong addresses for others, and lists most as only recycling cardboard.

"It appears the city's records do not accurately reflect the extent of our recycling efforts," spokeswoman Lori Bruce said in an email. She said the chain has not had any discussions with the city about recycling at its stores but plans to resubmit plans in the coming weeks to update the city's records.

‘It has slowed down’

When Philadelphia introduced commercial recycling in 1994, as required by a state law, 5,000 of 35,000 business properties submitted plans in the first week, according to an Inquirer report at the time. Over the last three decades, recycling has passed into common practice, but the number of properties with registered plans in Philadelphia has barely doubled.

Other major cities report that businesses are required to recycle. Portland, Ore., officials said they believe most businesses recycle but don't keep numbers. In Seattle, businesses are required to recycle all eligible materials, and monitoring has generally shown more than 90 percent comply, an official said. City businesses have largely moved on to food waste, which is now also illegal to trash in Seattle, said Hans Van Dusen, the city's solid waste contracts manager.

No one disputes the benefit: In 2014, the amount of material recycled and composted nationwide reduced carbon emissions to a level equal to eliminating 38 million cars, according to federal statistics.

In 2009, Philadelphia had the second-worst recycling rate among U.S. major cities, according to the Clean Air Council. The city has since largely focused its recycling efforts on residents, making strides.

But there is no blanket requirement for every business to have a recycling plan for paper, plastic, glass, cardboard and cans. Instead, a commercial property only has to recycle the materials it says it generates. It's something of an honor system, with back-end inspections: If a city inspector goes to a business that claims it only uses cardboard, looks in the waste bins, and sees glass or plastic, for instance, the business would be warned or fined, Williams said.

The Streets Department gives commercial properties the same type of ticket for this violation as it gives to residents, so the department could not say how many tickets it has given to businesses alone. The department issued more than 7,000 citations to commercial properties between 2008 and 2017 for not having a plan, not posting a plan publicly or not distributing it to employees. Fines range from $50 to $300.

The city's enforcement philosophy "isn't always to be really heavy-handed," said Scott McGrath, environmental services director for the Streets Department.

Its last big outreach effort was in 2009, when the city sent out a handbook with instructions for businesses about how to properly recycle. About 8,000 recycling plans came in, some updated and some new.

"It has slowed down," Williams acknowledged. "That's one of the areas we know we need to focus on."

Getting to ‘zero waste’

City officials say they need time to bring businesses into compliance with the 23-year-old law. They also hope to increase recycling as part of zero-waste efforts, including building audits. When notified of the data compiled by the Inquirer and Daily News, a spokesman for the mayor's office said the Streets Department is considering partnering with the Department of Commerce to remind businesses to file recycling plans.

"We are confident that these efforts will, over time, boost the compliance rate," said spokesman Mike Dunn.

Though Williams cited the stretched-thin city budget, Masur said enforcement work could pay for itself if the city assessed and collected fines from commercial properties.

For instance: If the city fined all the properties without recycling plans $150 per day for an entire year, it would be owed about $2 billion.

"They need to be willing to do more enforcement. They have to treat recycling like so many activities in the city… If there were no PPA [the Parking Authority], no one would feed the meter," Masur said. "And it would not be that hard. It's more like: Is there political will to do enforcement?"

And, said Maurice Sampson, who was hired in 1985 as the city's first recycling coordinator and is now an environmental advocate, the city must partner more effectively with waste haulers.

"We don't have an understanding in the city of Philadelphia of the necessity of having a partnership relationship with the industry as an important tool to make commercial recycling happen," he said. "Without [that]… the city will never succeed in making commercial recycling work."

One of the first steps could be updating its files. The city does have records of the 50,000 commercial properties registered in the city, but the Streets Department has never compared it against its list of those with recycling plans, Williams said.

Roughly 4,600 of the 16,000 plans it does have on file are duplicates, the newspapers' review found. Some plans are submitted by buildings and others by businesses; there is no way to tell how many commercial tenants fall under one plan; and some data were missing, incomplete, or disputed.

"This has fallen through the cracks," Masur said. "When you have a law on the books for 25 years, if you just don't put your foot down at some point and go, 'Enough is enough; we're going to stop turning a blind eye to it,' bad actors will keep being bad actors."