Philadelphia expands its plastics recycling
Brendan Lynch used to use his living room floor to sort all those oddball plastics that Philadelphia wouldn't recycle. Then he would give them to a neighbor, who would haul them to a special recycling facility in Pottstown.
Tag Brewer used to smuggle hers to a cousin in Radnor, where the recycling program was more robust.
Now Philadelphians need schlep their plastics no more.
In the latest step to boost its recycling rate, the city this month quietly expanded curbside plastics pickup, joining a national trend in places such as Haverford Township; Atlantic County, N.J.; and Los Angeles.
Instead of accepting only containers with the numerals 1 or 2 in the recycling logo on the bottom - mainly soda, milk, and detergent bottles - the city is taking numbers 3 through 7 as well.
So bring on the yogurt containers, the take-out trays, the margarine tubs. Philadelphia wants them all.
"There's a lot of joy out there in recycling-advocates land," said Maurice Sampson II, a longtime Philadelphia recycling advocate and past critic of the city's program.
The city's recycling rate - measured by weight rather than percentage of household participation - used to be among the lowest for large cities. In 2006, households recycled only about 5.5 percent of their waste.
That rate has risen to 16 percent as the city has added materials, moved to weekly collections, and switched to "single-stream" recycling, in which all items can be placed into one bin.
In 2009, the city hired RecycleBank, which operates a program that gives residents coupons and other rewards for recycling.
With the expansion, Streets Commissioner Clarena I.W. Tolson said she did not expect dramatic increases in tonnage, given that plastics are light. Plus, categories 3 to 7 amount to only 4 percent of the waste stream.
But the city also rebid its recycling contract, getting more favorable rates. It not only saves $68 a ton in landfill costs but also recoups $51.37 a ton for recyclables from Waste Management Inc., based in Houston.
The amount may change, based on a formula incorporating commodity rates. But for now, the monthly savings will likely exceed $400,000, Tolson said.
To handle the new material, Waste Management is building a $20 million facility on the 42-acre site of its transfer station near Cottman Avenue and I-95.
"Mr. Nutter has really come through on his promise," Sampson said. "Now it's up to the residents to know what to do and put it out there."
Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the American Chemistry Council's plastics division, said adding numbers 3 through 7 to the municipal recycling stream is a growing trend.
Washington expanded to recycling all plastics in 2008 when a local market for the commodity opened up, a city spokeswoman said.
Last month, the New York City Council passed a bill designating all plastic containers as recyclable when a new facility opens at the end of 2011.
In this region, some suburban towns expanded two years ago when the Allied Waste sorting facility in King of Prussia completed a $5 million upgrade.
Haverford started then - just as the economy nose-dived, noted Township Manager Larry Gentile. Even so, "it's been an enormous success," he said.
The first year, the township increased its recycling by 400 tons and saved residents about $150,000 through lower tipping fees and higher payments for the recycled materials.
Radnor expanded to single-stream recycling and added all the plastics categories in February. It's early, said Bill Hagan, the township's director of public works, but "we're actually starting to see revenue" from the program.
Collingswood claims to be the only municipality in Camden County to recycle all plastics. Towns contract through the county with a hauler that does not accept 3-and-up plastics. But borough residents raised such a ruckus that officials installed a special Dumpster at a drop-off site. Many nonresidents use it as well, recycling coordinator Brad Stokes said.
In the first five months, Collingswood collected seven tons of plastics. This year, Stokes predicted, the town will collect 25 to 30 tons - which would otherwise cost $2,000 to dispose of.
Some communities don't haul waste, so residents strike their own deals. Meanwhile, the list of haulers accepting all numbers of plastics keeps expanding - including firms such as A.J. Blosenski in Elverson and Ches-Mont Disposal in Skippack.
Partly due to the extra categories, recycling of plastics rose 11 percent from 2007 to 2008, the last year for which nationwide statistics are available, the chemistry council's Christman said.
The higher-numbered plastics were always recyclable, he said, but sorting was expensive and the commodity market was low.
Now prices are rising, so more communities are recycling more plastics. That leads to a stable supply that fuels a market expansion. And then another price hike.
Still, environmentalists are not totally sold on increased plastics recycling. They worry it will lull consumers into complacency about all the packaging they buy. The hierarchy they advocate is to reduce first, reuse next, and recycle only as a last resort.
On the other hand, ample packaging also saves resources, Christman said. If the television gets smashed or the strawberries are crushed in delivery, that's waste.
Another thorny problem is that many of the higher-number plastics are bundled together and sent to China for further sorting and reuse. This raises concerns about the environmental footprint of the transport, plus the human-rights aspect of using cheap labor with minimal environmental protections.
The reason the numbers have been so important is that each refers to a different plastics recipe. Some plastics have chemicals that make them stiffer, or resistant to chemicals, or resistant to heat. Some add coloring.
When it comes to being reused, each has a different melting point. So contamination can cause a mess.
Indeed, said Darby Hoover, a recycling expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, that's part of the motivation for a city to collect all the plastics - so the facilities can sort everything out, "and they don't have to ask consumers to make distinctions."
South Philadelphia resident Lynch, a Legal Aid lawyer, figures he will still save other hard-to-recycle materials. He has semi-comic visions of his descendants' sorting through landfills and being appalled at the goodies that this generation discarded.
He and his neighbors will still make the trek to Pottstown's nonprofit Recycling Services Inc., renowned among recycling addicts for the variety of materials it accepts - including waxed juice cartons and fishing line.
But with Philadelphia taking all the bulky plastics, they just won't go as often.