Pennsylvania Mirrors Recycling Across America

There are certain universal truths about recycling: Markets fluctuate, efficiency cuts costs and public education and participation make for cleaner, higher volumes.

Pennsylvania, one of the nation's first states to mandate curbside recycling, recently completed its fifth year. Its progress represents a microcosm of the state of recycling across America.

Pennsylvania's 1989 recycling law required municipalities with more than 10,000 residents to set up collection programs by September 1990 for three of the following materials: colored and clear glass, bimetal cans, aluminum, newspaper, cardboard, plastic and office paper. Communities with 5,000 to 10,000 people were given an extra year to implement their programs.

Eye On The Markets Paper markets have played a major role in the economics of recycling programs across the country. So how have the markets been for Pennsylvania's materials in particular? Fluctuating drastically, according to Tom Marshall, Bethlehem, Pa.'s recycling coordinator.

"Every year, we've doubled the previous year's sales of recyclables [from the dropoff center]," he said. "In 1993, we made about $32,000 from the drop-off at Illicks Mill and, in 1994, we made just a little more than $70,000." By October 1995, Marshall said his program had already made $181,000. For 1996, Marshall requested the most modest budget the program has seen: $492,000.

Cardboard is an apt indicator of how paper and other markets have surged not only statewide but globally as well. One reason paper became so valuable is the growth of Asian economies. In addition, 1the United States is the only country that collects more secondary paper than it uses. In 1993, the United States recovered more than 32.5 million metric tons of paper, but consumed less than 27 million metric tons, according to Jaakko Poyry, a Finnish paper company. By contrast, Japan, China and the rest of Asia used roughly 33 million metric tons but collected only 26 million metric tons of the resource, creating markets for U.S. recycling programs (see graph).

Asian buyers further aggravate the volatility of paper markets by declining to engage in long-term contracts, preferring instead to buy paper in spurts, according to Michelle Raymond of Raymond Communications, Riverdale, Md., publisher of State Recycling Laws Update and Recycling Laws International.

Also boosting demand for paper is U.S. facilities' increased capacity to accept secondary fibers. "In 1991 and 1992," said Marshall, "We said 'when there are more mills, [then] paper markets will open up.' That did come true. It became profitable to deal in recyclables."

Gluts were the bane of recycling programs between the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when thousands of communities across the nation began mandating recycling. Kutztown, Pa., for example, which had a voluntary program for years, suddenly discovered that the only economically viable destination for collected materials was the landfill.

Consequently, many towns initially were forced to heavily subsidize their programs. In Philadelphia, officials have always measured the cost of their program against the cost of picking up trash, according to Tom Klein, director of education and promotion. In 1992, when the city belatedly began curbside pickup, collecting a ton of recyclables cost more than $200, compared to $125 to pick up a ton of trash. Due to economies of scale, discontinuing some materials and switching to biweekly pick-up, the cost is now $95 to collect a ton of commingled recyclables in the city of brotherly love.

In 1991, Bethlehem's program was estimated to cost $18 per month for each of approximately 27,000 households in the city. At that time, residents paid $12 per month per household on their water bills to underwrite the program. Due to public objections and the ease of round numbers, the per household fee has dropped to $10 and, although the cost of the program has dropped slightly, the city still must take up the slack in funds.

Renegotiated Contracts As Pennsylvania's programs mature, officials are becoming contract-savvy. For example, Reading, Pa., initially charged $30 per year to pick up recyclables from each of its 35,000 households, according to the recycling coordinator, Jane Meeks. That figure has now dropped to $22 per household per year. Meanwhile, the program's costs have dropped from approximately $500,000 to projections of less than $100,000 for next year. Part of the decrease came when Reading leased its own trucks to the hauler; another portion is due to the city's restructured pick-up contract in which the city receives revenues from marketing the materials collected.

Small communities in particular will benefit from cooperative marketing rather than simply handing over revenues to haulers, said Pat Imperato, executive director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council, based in Newtown Square, Pa. These areas still can wring more office paper and other secondary materials from the business community, according to Imperato.

With their programs established and big-ticket items purchased, many Pennsylvania municipalities have rebid their contracts. For example, Bethlehem, Pa., selected Grand Central, which bid $290,000 per year for recycling pickup, compared to more than $400,000 paid to Waste Management Inc. to collect re-cyclables for several years.

At the other end of the state, Pittsburgh also recently renegotiated its recycling contract. "We went from paying $31.60 per ton to have material processed and marketed to receiving $42 per ton for the materials," said David Mazza, recycling program coordinator. "The City of Pittsburgh picks up its own materials, approximately 15,000 tons per year, and that tonnage has remained steady for the past three years." When Mazza's division was negotiating in July and August 1995, paper prices were skyrocketing. Then, when prices began to fall back down in mid-October 1995, "that worked out really well for us," he said.

The Resources Council's Imperato also helped to renegotiate a less expensive bid for recycling pick-up in her small municipality of East Town Township. "We all prefer free market contests, but to get the ball rolling sometimes you need government involvement," said Imperato. "In the late 1980s, free enterprise [didn't address] waste capacity problems. Waste management and recycling should be provided like a utility, with governmental controls and some free market influences."

Meeting The Challenges The confluence of market forces, the public's desires and governmental leadership will come into play again if legislators choose to phase out part of the state's recycling legislation. Under a sunset provision, in October 1998, the Pennsylvania legislature will debate re-authorizing a $2 fee charged for every ton of trash disposed in landfills. Intended as a disincentive to land-filling, the fee proved a source of nearly $35 million in grants for recycling programs in 1994 and 1995, according to Vincent Tarentino, a market development specialist with Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

Another legislative controversy involves deposit laws. Environmentalists in the state have long be-moaned a trash lobby which held back a bottle and can deposit law while surrounding states, such as Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, were implementing such a law. When recycling was mandated in 1989, however, the lack of a deposit law became a previously unnoticed advantage. Valuable aluminum remained in Pennsylvania's waste stream and increased the value of materials collected.

Many recycling coordinators acknowledge that the lack of a deposit law is now an advantage. Some suggest that other states would do well to drop deposit laws, which require more sorting than is now necessary and which create blocks of funds held and not disbursed by beverage companies.

Although it was caught up in the perceived Northeastern landfill crises in the late 1980s, Pennsylvania is very rural. Of all the states in the union, Pennsylvania has the largest number of people living in municipalities of fewer than 5,000. Consequently, PA Act 101 of 1989 had considered the needs of non-populous areas and exempted municipalities with fewer than 5,000 people. Still, this left a challenge for small towns of 5,000 to 10,000 who already were fiscally squeezed and were required to collect recyclables by September 1991.

One creative solution came from Perkasie, Pa., a picturesque community of 8,600 approximately 40 miles north of Philadelphia. In 1990, the town instituted a program to collect glass, cans and newspaper at no extra charge to households. Glass and aluminum are sorted as a compartmentalized trailer drives through town; the sorted recyclables are then marketed. Newspaper and cardboard also are collected once per month.

Trash is only picked up in authorized 15- and 30-gallon bags for which residents must pay $1.25 or $2.25. "This system encourages people to recycle because, if you can recycle everything, your trash won't cost you one cent," said Jay Godshall, mayor of Perkasie.

Of course, separating the recyclables on the fly and collecting an entire town's glass and aluminum with one pick-up pulling a trailer is only feasible for tiny towns. In addition, some problems have arisen, such as people taking their trash to a friend's house or dumping illegally. For the most part, however, Perkasie's pay-per-bag program has been quite successful, inspiring a score of other Pennsylvania towns to try similar programs.

Although many balked initially, haulers also have been encouraged, via bidding, to shoulder the responsibility of recycling in rural communities. After five years, nearly every sparsely populated Pennsylvania county provides some recyclables collection. Materials are collected in specially marked bins on trash pick-up day.

Striving For Efficiency Overall, recycling programs' improved financial stability must be attributed to much more than renegotiated contracts and better markets: increasing efficiency is critical.

For example, at the landfill drop-offs and on Illicks Mill Road, Bethlehem's program has perfected the logistics of moving roll-off containers. Bethlehem's collection costs also have dropped due to route redesign. A well-established public education program has resulted in clean commingled recyclables, further reducing costs.

Due to such measures, recycling programs are not only surviving but thriving in Pennsylvania.