Energy & Environment

A Suprising Uprising

Big cities have revived and upgraded recycling programs.
April 2005

After years of decline and fall, recycling is in a revival mode, even in urban areas where demographics and density make it harder to get residents to participate. Cities across the country are instigating new policies to improve the rates at which their residents divert material from landfills. Some are motivated by rising tipping fees and transportation costs; others are furthering citizen demands for environment-friendly policies.

The most unusual program is in Philadelphia where the city has developed a pilot program that, in effect, pays residents to recycle. Even though recycling is mandatory, the city has a very low rate of residential recycling.

To encourage more participation, the city is offering residents gift certificates to local retail outlets. The amount of the certificate is based on the weight of recyclable material picked up by recycling trucks. Those trucks are specially outfitted with scales that can weigh a household's recyclables to the ounce right at the curb. The process is streamlined by having each bin marked with a radio frequency identifier that correlates with the household to which it belongs. Residents are awarded a $5 gift certificate for every 10 pounds of recycled material, up to $25 a month.

Recycling rates are already showing a 40 percent increase in tonnage in the pilot neighborhoods, and the city's haulers have increased their efficiency with the help of bigger trucks and a single-stream processing system. David Robinson, Philadelphia's recycling coordinator, says the program, which is managed by a private organizer and counts on the help of participating merchants, could save the city money on trash disposal. The city's arrangement with the private company extends to the two pilot neighborhoods, but after six months the program will be evaluated.

Oakland, California, is also increasing its recycling efforts. The city council passed a resolution to join Alameda County in pushing for a 75 percent diversion rate by 2010--in light of the fact that the city has already surpassed the statewide 50 percent requirement for several years now.

To move toward that goal, Oakland is providing separate 64-gallon carts for trash, regular recyclables and yard waste and food scraps. The latter has caused some minor pushback. Becky Dowdakin, Oakland's solid waste recycling program supervisor, calls it "the yuck factor": People are squeamish about handling food waste. To counter that, the department is distributing small plastic containers that fit under kitchen sinks and make it easier for people to compost.

Seattle also upgraded its already successful program. Trash collectors now check residents' garbage for undiverted recyclables and issue warnings to those who don't comply with recycling rules. Next year, the consequences escalate. Trash with more than 10 percent of recyclable materials in it won't be picked up at all.

And in New York, the Big Apple is re-joining the recycling stream. Last September, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a sweeping 20- year contract to revive the city's program, which had been stripped down in lean economic times. He cited the fact that with a long-term contract, recycling actually saves the city money compared with short- term waste removal contracts.

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