Recycling On The Streets Of Philadelphia

The greatest accomplishment of the eight-person Philadelphia Recycling Office (PRO) is "that we are here at all," according to Tom Klein, director of education and promotion.

The city's recycling program didn't take off immediately. Pennsylvania Act 101 of 1989 required Philadelphia to collect three types of materials at the curbside at least once per month by September 26, 1990. Yet it took the city until March 1994 to reach compliance through a combination of no-nonsense fiscal policy and grassroots recycling education.

Philadelphia typifies the challenges posed by curbside collection in large cities with urban problems. The original recycling office started working on curbside recycling after city ordinance 1251a was passed in June 1987 and "burned out," according to Klein, because they received little support from the city government. Klein moved from the city planning commission to PRO in August 1988.

According to Ron Bennett, a community organizer with PRO, the city started a pilot curbside program in March 1989 in a "flowery, middle-class neighborhood of environmentalists." Curbside pick-up then moved south and inward, neighborhood by neighborhood, from the suburban fringes into the city. The recycling department's enthusiasm waned when they realized that the more affluent neighborhoods, with participation rates of 60 to 70 percent, were carrying the poorer neighborhoods, who had participation rates of only 20 to 30 percent.

Prior to each neighborhood's first recycling day, residents received a six-gallon recycling bucket emblazoned with the city seal and the PRO telephone number. Although the container came with a flyer describing how to recycle, the initial attempts were not without stumbling blocks.

Building Participation "You can come around with buckets and circulars in the middle-class neighborhoods and get cooperation," said Bennett, "but the inner city is a different beast. People communicate over the stoop and wait for face-to-face contact before they participate in a program."

For instance, PRO tried a different approach in north Philadelphia. Bennett identified the people who garnered the most respect in the be-leaguered inner city neighborhoods, such as ministers, block captains and people organizing around crime prevention, and began to disseminate recycling information orally through them. "I began speaking at neighborhood meetings and going to the gardens that people were re-claiming from empty lots. The guy from the store on the corner would bring sodas and I'd talk about recycling right there in the garden," he said.

"They were the toughest neighborhoods, so I was a little cautious, but it was very rewarding. I tried to let the people know we were committed to helping them and that we weren't just sending another suit into the community to promise great things," said Bennett.

If Bennett is the visionary in the PRO, Klein is the hard-headed realist. "Discussions of pay-per-bag in small communities of 5,000 people like Perkasie and plans for personal contact in a city of our size are not helpful or realistic," Klein said. For example, Philadelphia has 64 compartmentalized vehicles in three different sizes with three-person crews to pick up the city's recycling routes.

In fall of 1992, on top of the basic challenge of initiating recycling, Phil-adelphia's budgetary problems forced the city to reduce collection from weekly to bi-weekly. The city also dropped plastics from the program because they accounted for five percent of the weight on the trucks and took up 60 percent of the space, said Bennett.

At that time, 159,000 of the city's 674,000 households had curbside pick-up. Before the reduction in pick-up frequency and the elimination of plastic, the participation rate was between 70 and 80 percent; af-ter the switch it was about 35 percent. Participation also had dropped because the city began to collect in "difficult" neighborhoods. Bi-weekly pick-up shouldn't reduce participation, said Klein, but it does. "After all, most people get paid every other week and nobody has trouble remembering that," he said.

Poor weather conditions in the Northeast this past winter also took their toll on the city's participation rates. But now, in warm weather, people seem to have adjusted to bi-weekly pick-up, with 566,000 households scheduled for curbside collection in March.

The balance of Philadelphia's households reside in multi-family units whose owners are responsible for providing recycling. The sanitation division of Philadelphia's streets department collected approximately 27,000 tons of recyclables from 1991 to 1993, and PRO projects that 60,000 tons of newspapers, bi-metal and aluminum cans and green, clear and brown jars and bottles will be picked up in 1995.

Public Education Education is the PRO's primary focus. Flyers list the PRO's number for general information about recycling and another number at the streets department for collection questions or complaints. "Our office is essentially a think tank. We are only as good as our ideas because we have limited financial and logistical resources and must get someone else to implement what we come up with," Klein said.

One of those ideas is a $140,000 contract for public education awarded to the Clean Air Council (CAC), a national environmental advocacy organization. Since the program will be changing in 1994, Klein finds it difficult to make a projection of tonnage for the year.

However, CAC is betting $10,000 that its radio ads, flyers, hotline and school assemblies can increase the tonnage of recyclables picked up in April 1995 by 40 percent above the tonnage picked up the previous April.

CAC bid on the contract because it wants to promote recycling as an alternative to incineration, said Andrew Altman, the organization's director of advocacy and program manager. The basic strategy of CAC's education program will be a combination of "broadcasting and narrow casting the recycling message" according to Altman.

Broadcasting will entail "typical PR methods," he said, including video and audio public service announcements and newspaper ads. Other marketing materials will include a fact sheet on recycling, buttons, magnets, postage-paid recycling pledge cards and a recycling mascot.

Narrow casting will involve grassroots organization in select communities where recycling is low, including a cash incentive for the com- munity that improves the most over the next 12 months, according to Altman. CAC also plans to send speakers to community meetings and present programs in schools. "Schools are a great forum for promoting recycling. Kids are eager to help recycle," he said.

"CAC's strength as a contractor lies in our know-how in face-to-face situations," said Altman. "You can buy a lot of air time with $140,000, and we are not selling a product; we are promoting a message and a philosophy, which is harder to do in only 15 or 30 seconds."

Nuts And Bolts Since its resources are limited, the PRO must operate in a practical, no-nonsense manner. Because the costs of collecting recyclables were initially much higher than the costs of trash collection, the incentive to make the program more efficient was strong. Philadelphia, which has been and continues to be plagued with budget problems, could not afford to subsidize the recycling program.

"Mayor Ed Rendell promised not to raise taxes," said Bennett. "In our office, we have to run the program like a business or we go out of business." Making routes more efficient, changing to bi-weekly pick-up and eliminating plastics from the program brought the cost of picking up a ton of recyclables to $119 in Sep-tember 1993, down from $179 per ton in 1990.

All non-recycled residential trash is disposed at a private landfill. Tip-ping fees, transfer station fees, equipment overhead, collection and program management bring the total cost of trash disposal to $140 per ton.

A consultant's report for Philadelphia's Solid Waste Advisory Committee (SWAC) estimated that municipally collected trash and recyclables totaled 873,000 tons in 1990 and represented about 32 percent of the total solid waste stream in the city. In 1990, public and private recycling efforts diverted about 9.6 percent of the city's total solid waste stream.

Pennsylvania Act 101 has set up a grant fund that is fed by a $2 per ton surcharge on waste disposed in the state. Although Philadelphia accounts for 16 percent of the state's population, it receives only 10 percent of the total funds available. Nonetheless, the grants have paid for the recycling buckets, some collection vehicles, public education, composting equipment and 50 percent of the recycling coordinator's salary.

Recycling programs have gained political and financial support in recent years, since the cost of recycling dropped between $15 and $21 less per ton than landfilling in Pennsylvania. Klein notes that if recycling costs $119 per ton and 27,000 tons are recycled, the city's cost avoidance equals $567,000. "But in the end, the savings will just make the city's deficit a little smaller," he said.

PRO attempts to promote recycling and bring down its costs in several ways. The Recycling Advisory Committee (RAC) was formed to bring volunteers, representatives from environmental advocacy groups, business people, recycling processors, trash haulers and community groups into the recycling planning process. The committee wrote the city's solid waste plan, which was accepted by the mayor as the city's official plan in 1991.

Roundtable discussions have brought larger numbers of representatives of the same type of business together at one time to educate the commercial and institutional sectors about their recycling responsibilities. As a result, businesses have underwritten sector-specific recycling manuals.

Recycling Markets Because of high landfill costs in the urban Northeast, Philadelphia's recycling program places more emphasis on disposal-cost avoidance than on generating revenue from the sale of recyclables. The contracted processors market recyclables by area, not by commodity, since the city will pay for processing when necessary. Also, there are at least 38 recycling businesses in the city and its suburbs.

Philadelphia is located near reliable markets for the materials picked up in the city's curbside recycling program, including aluminum, steel, bi-metal cans, glass and newspaper. Drop-off igloos for the collection of aluminum and colored glass attracted an additional 270 tons of materials in 1993.

While surrounding states passed deposit laws on bottles and aluminum cans, Pennsylvania did not. When curbside recycling was put in place, the waste stream had a higher value because of the aluminum, currently valued at about 25 cents per pound. And since can scavenging is legal in Philadelphia, people collect cans to make money and help keep the streets clean.

Philadelphia's recycling program has had its share of challenges, but seems to be back on track. Now is the time for recycling to prove itself as an economically viable waste management option, according to Klein.

"Public education programs can be glitzy and entertaining, but this year we need to see results in resident participation and the tons of recyclables picked up. You could say that those are our sales figures," he said.