Recycling 411

Last week's posting about the reappointment of the Streets Commissioner led to a lot of questions about recycling in Philly. I'm an absolute waste geek, and thought I'd share some info with all of you. I'd also be open to using this thread as a Q&A on recycling issues in general since there's so much to cover, I know I won't get to it all. I'll start off with some of the most frequently asked questions I get:

Where does my recycling go?
Recycling collected in Philly goes to Blue Mountain Recycling,which is located on Grays Ferry in South Philly. Blue Mountain is a state-of-the-art facility and is able to sort single stream recycling- meaning that recyclables can be put out in one bin and separated at the facility.

How well does Philly do in recycling?
We were the first city to enact a mandatory curbside recycling program in 1984, but are now behind the curve compared to other peer cities. Our diversion rate (which is the percentage of all of our waste that gets recycled) is about 8% right now. Most other cities are around 20% or higher- LA is around 40%.

Why haven't we recycled plastics?
At one time we did, but plastics are lightweight and take up a lot of space, so it wasn't economic to collect them. Now compactor trucks make it easier to collect them, and the growing markets in China and India, as well as the increasing cost of oil has made plastics more in demand. The City is now gradually shifting to single stream city-wide, which means eventually plastics will be collected everywhere. Right now, single-stream is in the Northeast, West Philly, Center City and South Philly.

What materials are collected?
For those single stream areas, materials include glass, aluminum, tin, all paper, plastics #1 and #2 and both lightweight and corrugated cardboard. For areas without single stream, plastics and corrugated cardboard are not yet accepted.

How can I get my apartment/office building to recycle?
This is a tricky one. SWEEP officers are charged with the enforcement of sanitation laws, but there are only 35 or so to cover the whole city for both residential and commerical violations. Plus, if a commercial building is caught without recycling, the fine is only $25- not enough to scare them. However, it is becoming financially smart for building managers to recycle- even if it's only for paper. You can try talking to your building manager and see what the obstacles are. The Greater Philadelphia Commerical Recycling Council is a great source of information.

Where can I recycle electronics?
The City runs Hazardous Household Waste collection events every few months, and they now collect electronics . Check with the electronic company about their recycling program as more and more are offering a send back service. You can also give away electronics or just about anything else through Philly Freecycle, which is a free online materials exchange at

Does it cost the City more to recycle?
No- in fact it actually saves money. The City has to pay upwards of $70 a ton to deposit our waste at a landfill. On the other hand, it receives about $35 a ton for our recyclables. An audit done by the City Controller found that if Philly was recycling at a 35-40% rate, the City would save $17 million a year.

Where can I get a recycling bin?
You don't need an official blue bin to recycle- any sturdy container clearly marked with the word RECYCLING will work. The Philadelphia Recycling Office also has stickers you can request to put on your bucket. If you really want one though, you have to go to one of the Sanitation Yards. Go as early as you can in the day though- they often leave early-

What is RecycleBank?
RecycleBank is a private, for-profit company that has contracted with the City to run a pilot program in Chestnut Hill and West Oak Lane. RecycleBank is a incentive-based system that works in conjunction with with City trucks and workers. Participating households are given a large bin with a bar code on it. Trucks are outfitted with a mechanical arm. When the trucks come around, the worker puts the bin on the arm, which scans the bar code, weighs the bin and dumps it into the truck. The data is then stored, showing how much each address has recycled. The resident can log onto (which you can also go check out) and the more pounds they recycle, the more credits they earn. Those credits can be cashed in for coupons to national stores like Home Depot or Whole Foods, used at local stores like the Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop, or donated. The pilot program has been very successful, but negotiations between RecycleBank and the City to expand the pilot have been stalled.

Oka, that's it for now. Feel free to post questions and I'll answer them as best I can. And if any of you are interested in getting more involved, the Recycling Alliance of Philadelphia is planning on putting out an electronic newsletter and we're reworking our website, but you can visit the current version here:

Great info on recycling, one question (in several parts)

While you call yourself a waste geek, I happen to be a numbers geek so I'm wondering: how accurate is that 8% number? How is it derived? Who is responsible for measuring it? I'm assuming it's something on the order of:

(recyclable material in tons sent to Blue Mountain + tons picked up by RecycleBank)/(tons Recyclebank+Blue Mountain + tons that go to landfill) X 100.

Does the city do these measures? Are they estimates or are they based on household surveys? Does the number include the waste picked up from commercial places and condos?

My five-gallon buckets just aren't doing it for me any more. Thanks for the info on where to get a blue bin. I don't think I ever would have stumbled upon on my own. It is such a catchy url, I'm sure the city could market it pretty easy (sheesh). Would it be so hard for them to set up www. phila. gov/bluebin?

Before I go off on my critiques of the city website, which I promised I wouldn't do, I should just repeat my gratitude and get ready to make the trek to Domino Lane & Umbria Street for an official blue bin.

The numbers are crunched by

The numbers are crunched by the City. It is an actual number, not an estimate, and comes straight from the tonnage amounts. Since the city both pays the landfill by the ton and gets paid by Blue Mountain by the ton, everything is weighed- and that's where the tonnage diverson comes from.

The 8% is the residential diversion rate- I should have made that clear. The commercial recycling rate is much higher- I believe around 30%, so combined our overall number isn't as bad.

In defense of the city- the website isn't THAT badly named. The City site is: but then if you want specific recycling info, it's which is managed by an outside entity. For some odd reason, when you plug it in, a city page pops up prompting you to click on the url- which is all numbers. I'm not a tech person, so I have no clue what that's about.

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