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Who’s REALLY to Blame for Philly Burning 50% of its Recyclables?

Who’s REALLY to Blame for Philly Burning 50% of its Recyclables?

Over the holidays, I had a brilliant plan for DIY gifts: mason jar bath salts and hot cocoa mixes. After seeing an advertisement for Sprout’s bulk bins, I rented a Zipcar with my fabric bulk bags in tow to gather the essentials: cocoa mix, marshmallows, mason jars, and Epsom salt.

However, I couldn’t find most of the components in the bulk bins – except for sugar and chocolate chips.

Last week when my dish soap ran out, I ran to MOM’s for my Sun & Earth refill, to find out their bulk product is currently out of stock. Sadly, I left the store with a brand new plastic bottle, identical to the two that I planned on refilling.

For the past couple of years, I’ve had readers tell me they saw a recycling bin and trash being collected into the same Philadelphia sanitation truck. Others stated how their building isn’t recycling, or employer at work doesn’t take on sustainability initiatives.

Doing the right thing can seem REALLY difficult sometimes. And then sometimes we try to do the right thing, but our efforts are defeated by an outside force.

50% of the City’s Recyclables are being burned. Why?

Here are a few of the issues plaguing the city.

As Samantha Wittchen recently wrote in Grid, 50% of Philadelphia’s recyclables are currently being incinerated, due to a mix of reasons: two years without a city Recycling Director, an embarrassingly small department compared to the city’s size, a lack of priority for Mayor Kenney, recycling contract rates and China’s stringent restrictions on recycling. According to the article, one mismanagement increased the recycling price over 1000%:

“Amid this downturn, Philly’s recycling contract expired, leaving it with no rate guarantees. The price the city had bargained with recycling vendor Republic Services was $16 per ton, but when the contract expired in September, the new interim rate offered was $170 per ton, over a 1,000 percent increase. The city enlisted Waste Management to take half of its recyclables—all they had capacity for—at $78 per ton, still almost five times what the city had been paying.

Knowing the contract was set to expire when the outlook for recycling markets was grim, the city could have started the process for awarding a new contract well before the old one expired. It didn’t, and critics argue that it just wasn’t a priority for the Streets Department.”

Overall, these are all important pieces to an institutional problem: the Philadelphia Streets Department is failing at responsibly handling our recycling.

However, the issue is one piece of a larger epidemic. Maybe the entire recycling system is broken.

6 Ways Recycling is Flawed

  1. We produce entirely too much trash and waste. Since 1960, the amount of waste collected in the US has nearly tripled and accounts for almost 5% of global GHG. And our global waste is on pace to triple again by 2100 to exceed 11 million tons per day. Single-use plastic wasn’t even around until 1950 and is estimated to outnumber fish in the ocean by 2050.

2. Recycling is a commodities market, and not in the favor of reducing our impact. In theory, all products are recyclable. However, we consider something “recyclable” if we can put it in a bin, which means someone (a country) is willing to buy it.

The value for recycling has decreased rapidly (40% over the past year), which also makes sense due to laws of supply and demand.

But we’re also creating more new products because it’s cheaper. It’s often more expensive to buy products that are recycled than new. One solution is to create pricing policies to increase demand for products made with recycled products and post-consumer waste.

Policies can also shift for who has to deal with the waste. Once companies create a product, there is no liability for where that product ends up.

Instead, the blame is being put back on the customer, both by the city and industry.

What about customer engagement campaigns to make recycling easy? As we wrote in 2013 about America Recycles Day, experts have called Keep America Beautiful a “greenwashing corporate campaign”, created in response to Vermont’s bottle bill.

After the recent UN Climate Report, many activists have called for larger scale solutions: a carbon tax to force corporations to pay for their part. What if we forced companies to pay for the lifecycle of their product, to stimulate consumer behavior?

3. There is little incentive for companies to collect recyclables. As I recently discussed in our City Rising podcast episode with Zero Waste and Litter Director, Nic Esposito, there is zero incentive for companies to make products in bulk or receive recyclables. Bottle bills require a refundable deposit on containers, but only ten states have a system in place, providing little incentive for customers to recycle.

However, bottle bills died mostly due to corporate interests. And industry isn’t only concerned with bottle bills.

4. Lobbyists and corporate incentives continue to influence legislation locally. Plastic bag fees have been killed in Philadelphia through big plastic several times.

5. Companies are taking a step backward towards reducing waste, and few items are available in bulk. After Jeff Bezos bought Whole Foods, you are no longer allowed to bring your own container. Even customers who want to buy in bulk can get limited ingredients at specific stores.

6. There’s a false narrative that recycling is the “right” thing to do. Recycling has allowed customers to buy a case of water and feel guilt-free when recycling, instead of buying a reusable cup. As Kenneth Worthy, author of “Invisible Nature: Healing the Destrictve Divide Between People and the Environment” said,

“When consumers see the recycling symbol, they may think that the product is without environmental costs … or that purchasing is actually an environmentally positive act. So the recycling symbol on the bottle or just the idea that we can recycle stuff when we’re done with it may actually lead us to buy more stuff than we need in the first place.

That’s the rebound effect — the idea that a product is more efficient or recyclable may make people buy more and thus cancel out the purported efficiency, perhaps resulting in more overall environmental damage.”

It’s Time to Shift the Conversation

Don’t misquote me: we cannot (and should not) reject recycling as an industry.

But we cannot continue consuming and discarding at our current rates. It’s not an impossible dream, but a culmination of tiny switches. It’s a matter of shifting habits, shopping locally, buying in bulk and rejecting products and things we don’t love and need.

Instead, we need to shift our priorities. We need to emphasize reducing waste, reusable products, composting and buying less (quality over quantity) over recycling. 

Overall, we all have to change: companies, the city, and customers. But blaming only one part of the equation is a misguided argument of a larger problem.

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Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake. View all posts by Julie Hancher
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