Recycling's Rising Rates

May 1, 1999

9 Min Read
Recycling's Rising Rates

Kathleen M. White

Increasing recycling participation is challenging, particularly in major U.S. urban centers, such as Boston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

Although recycling programs in these four urban centers differ, the obstacles program operators face are similar.

For example, each city's recycling program must serve a large, diverse population using a similar collection method or combination of methods. The size and scope of each city's service area traditionally causes participation to be low and sporadic, despite the fact that they face recycling goals or ordinances, in some cases.

As a result, recycling officials in these four cities are forging ahead with programs to increase participation, which they hope will translate into higher recycling rates.

Limits to Urban Recycling Many program operators in large cities question the reality of residential recycling rates beyond a low base level.

"It's a hard question to answer in a big city," says Susan Cascino, recycling director for the city of Boston. "There are different behaviors in different parts of the city." For example, a capture-rate study recently conducted in a Boston neighborhood showed that the recycling rate capacity was between 18 percent and 23 percent. In certain neighborhoods, residents frequently eat out, lowering the amount of recyclables generated, Cascino says.

However, according to Robin Ingenthron, strategic planner for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Consumer Programs, Boston, cities generally produce a lower amount of recyclables per capita than suburban areas. "Urban areas recycle less because they have less to recycle," he says.

Similarly, in Los Angeles, less affluent areas of the city generally produce less recyclables, although the recyclables produced often are higher quality than those from higher income neighborhoods, says Antoine Raphael, project manager for the Solid Resources Collection Division and Bureau of Sanitation for the city of Los Angeles.

"Contamination in south central Los Angeles or less affluent areas is lower than in affluent areas," he says. "Most people in less affluent areas already recycle." He attributes this phenomenon, in part, to California's bottle bill, where citizens can redeem discarded bottles for their deposit value.

Los Angeles recently conducted a study that indicated recyclable materials comprised 40 percent of the total waste stream. Twenty-three percent was greenwaste, and 37 percent was solid waste.

"We know it's not possible to recycle the entire 40 percent, but we're confident we can reach a 30 percent residential recycling rate," Raphael said.

In Chicago, officials also are confident they can increase diversion levels in the residential blue-bag recycling program beyond the required 25 percent.

"We're hoping to approach 30 percent by the end of this year," says Bill Abolt, first deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of the Environment, the agency that oversees the city's recycling program.

In New York, however, officials believe there may be limited materials to extract from residential waste.

"People are beginning to see that 25 percent may be a limit for cities," says Robert Lange, director of New York's Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling.

"It's a different situation in, say, Seattle, where there is an enormous amount of yard waste," he says. "When you look at what's available in a residential sector's trash and what has a market, you're looking at an upper limit close to 25 percent."

Faced with residential recycling limits, a number of large cities are relying on the commercial sector to boost overall rates.

For example, New York's recycling rate, factoring in both residential and commercial recycling programs, is more than 36 percent.

A recent New York City Council vote to extend weekly recyclables collection throughout the city by mid-2000 may boost rates further.

Los Angeles' combined - residential and commercial - recycling diversion rate is close to 47 percent, according to Raphael. In Chicago, the latest figures indicate a 46 percent overall waste diversion rate. Because the city's residential recycling program covers approximately 25 percent of Chicago's total waste stream, officials see the residential and commercial programs working in tandem to increase recycling rates.

"We don't believe there's a limit to recycling in cities," says Chicago's Abolt. "But you have to look at the city's entire waste stream and not just focus on one section."

Because commercial recycling is voluntary in Boston, officials have not been able to estimate a combined commercial and residential rate for the city.

However, a recent document reports the state's overall commercial recycling rate is 37 percent.

Reaching the Masses - New York and L.A. For Los Angeles and New York, the two largest metropolitan areas in the country, increasing residential recycling means making sure that all residential customers are properly and conveniently served by their respective recycling programs.

In Los Angeles, officials are nearing completion of an 18-month upgrade of the city's curbside recycling program. The city is switching from bin collection to automated commingled collection using 90-gallon containers.

The new collection method already has more than doubled the city's participation rate and increased the recycling rate, because it is more efficient and convenient for residents, Raphael says.

Once all 720,000 residences served by the city's recycling program receive the new automated containers, Los Angeles will represent the largest automated curbside recycling program in the United States.

Nevertheless, Los Angeles recycling officials still must cope with a tremendous amount of scavenging for bottle-bill materials from curbside recyclables, Raphael says. "Our new containers have helped deter scavenging, but the problem still is out there."

Similarly, New York also has faced scavenging and contamination challenges.

"Because of the amount of pedestrian traffic we have, we lose an enormous amount of material at the curb - including bottle-bill material - and we have an enormous amount of contamination," Lange says.

Lack of solid waste and recyclables storage space also is an issue. "Some housing in New York dates back more than 100 years," Lange says. "When a building is designed, there's no factoring in solid waste handling."

However, city officials have been working with architects and planners to rectify the problem in future building designs.

Another inherent challenge of operating a recycling program in a major urban area is providing a uniform, easy-to-understand program for all residents. This is tough in New York, given the 3.5 million households served.

To meet the challenge, the city conducts ongoing television, radio and print campaigns, and has produced educational videos about recycling, which are available at public libraries, Lange says. Recycling information for the public also is available from a 24-hour hotline and the telephone directory.

Expanding the number of materials designated for collection over the years has helped move the city's recycling rate up to 20 percent, Lange says. However, he adds, "We've targeted every material that currently has a market. Now, greater numbers must come through greater participation."

The city has a residential recycling-rate goal of 25 percent, which it hopes to meet by mid-2001. The key to increased participation is increased awareness.

"The overall challenge every municipality faces is changing behavior," Lange says. "And only time and public education will take care of that."

Changing Attitudes in Boston and Chicago In Boston, where the city's residential recycling program serves approximately 500,000 residences, recycling program operators are working to increase participation by changing attitudes.

Residents are motivated to recycle by factors that affect them and their communities, according to a state-sponsored residential recycling participation study the city took part in recently.

As a result, the city targeted non-recyclers with an advertising campaign featuring neighborhood-specific promotional tie-ins.

For example, in one section of the city, officials installed a playground made of recycled materials to serve as a focal point and reminder of recycling's benefits.

"Typically, the easiest convert would be somebody who was a long-term resident or a homeowner," Cascino says. However, with Boston's large student population, and with approximately 25 percent of the city's residences consisting of apartment buildings, finding "easy converts" is not always simple.

According to Cascino, the city has conducted several tests to gauge participation, showing mixed results. "It's a huge effort for us," she says. "We have tried various formulas and there's no exact formula for this."

However, she points out, the city is confident that - like the program's recycling rate - participation has increased since curbside recycling started in 1994.

Excluding bottle-bill material, the city's residential program, which uses a commingled bin collection method, currently averages a 14 percent recycling diversion rate. Massachusetts has a goal of 46 percent recycling by 2000.

In addition to changing attitudes to increase participation, the city initiated some special recycling programs for residents. To encourage home composting and yard waste set out, a special promotion currently is offered where residents receive 10 free leaf bags with the purchase of a compost bin.

Officials also have added more household hazardous waste (HHW) collection programs and continue to offer weekly "swap shops," or sites where residents can pick up reusable items such as leftover paint.

In addition, officials hope that increasing recycling education efforts in apartment buildings and public schools will boost recycling.

Chicago faces a similar task. Officials are working to change attitudes about recycling - and their own program - to increase participation. However, Chicago uses a blue-bag curbside collection program, where residents set out bagged recyclables alongside their solid waste for weekly pickup.

According to the Chicago Recycling Coalition, city residents have been confused by this new collection method, often believing that recyclables are thrown away because they are collected with solid waste.

To combat this, the city set up a major television and radio ad campaign in summer 1998, to re-explain the blue-bag program to residents.

The program, which serves approximately 750,000 residences, had a goal to reduce waste by 25 percent by the end of 1997. Although the latest figures show the city has achieved that goal, in the past, the Department of the Environment, the agency responsible for managing the city's curbside program, has struggled with fluctuating diversion rates stemming from low participation.

Also notable, the city recently renegotiated contract changes with its recyclables processor, Waste Management Inc. (WMI), Houston. The new contract provides incentives for the city to increase recycling, as well as levies penalties for WMI if the city does not reach a certain diversion level.

"Essentially, we're setting a minimum because we don't want to go below a certain level of recycling," Abolt says. "We're trying to make sure there's a base level of recycling for everyone." WA

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