Is My Recycling Being... Recycled?

Courtney Duchene, Philadelphia Citizen
Recycled art

Header photo credit: Todd Lappin via Flickr

Philadelphians' skepticism about the City’s waste policies has led to an abysmal recycling rate. Here’s what really happens after you put out your blue bin — and how the City could do more.

Fairhill resident Lois Williams likes to call herself a “religious recycler.”

She rinses out her cans and bottles. She dries them before placing them in the bin. She knows what kind of plastics the city recycles (types 1, 2 and 5). For her, it’s part of keeping Philly clean — she lives near a site where illegal dumping is common — but also protecting the environment for future generations.

But when she talks to her neighbors, she finds many don’t share her passion. In fact, many don’t recycle at all. Williams has been to meetings run by impact real estate developer HACE’s Neighborhood Advisory Subcommittee, of which she is a member, at the Rivera Senior Center in Allegheny where residents expressed concerns that their recycling was just being tossed in a landfill. She’s even started to doubt her own efforts.

“Why am I going through all of this if you’re just putting it in the dump and then burning the stuff up or something like that?” Williams says.

Some residents point to the pandemic as the moment when they started noticing issues with Philly’s recycling system. As the Inquirer reported at the time, staffing shortages due to illness and other factors led to sanitation department workers mixing trash and recycling. Insiders also blamed mismanagement in the Streets Department, like spending $10 million on recycling advertising campaigns instead of tactics.

Though the city says it has ceased practices like burning recyclables and combining trash and recycling, activists say many residents still worry their recycling doesn’t actually get recycled — doubts that are reflected in Philadelphia’s woeful recycling rate. The city’s current recycling rate is 13 percent, up five percent from a low of 8 percent a few years ago, but still below pre-pandemic levels and well behind other cities.

“Why isn’t [recycling] working in Philly? Because we’re watching it going into the trash. Because we aren’t being told how it’s supposed to be done.” — Maurice Sampson, Philadelphia’s first recycling program administrator

“The city broke the trust,” says Shari Hersh, founder of Trash Academy, a grassroots advocacy group that fights to end illegal dumping and for other changes to Philadelphia’s waste management policies. “You have to trust in order to participate.”

How Philly’s recycling system went astray

The pandemic split open cracks in the city’s recycling system — but many residents and advocates were well aware of problems before Covid hit. In January 2019, China put into effect its National Sword policy, banning importation of plastics and other materials.

The policy significantly shifted the market dynamics for recycling in the U.S. In 2012, when China was still importing waste, Philly paid $67.35 a ton for processing its recyclables. After National Sword, when the city’s contract with its then-recycling operator, Republic Services, expired, the company wanted to charge the city $170 a ton to process its recycling. For a period of several months, Philadelphia sent about half of its recyclables to a waste-to-energy plant in Chester to be burned while it looked for a more affordable recycling contractor.

“They just were not prepared for a contract running out … and just not prepared for what was about to happen to the industry,” says Nic Esposito, current director of policy and engagement for the advocacy group Circular Philadelphia who served as the city’s zero waste and litter director from 2016 to 2020.

The result: In the spring of 2022, the city’s recycling rate, which measures the percentage of all solid waste recycled, reached a low of eight percent. It’s since crawled back up to 13 percent. New York City’s recycling rate is around 20 percent; Boston’s is 25 percent. Nationally, the recycling rate is 32 percent.

How Philly’s recyclables are processed now

The City only agreed to answer questions for this story via email, and it did not make Kyle Lewis, Philly’s recycling program director, available for an interview despite a request to Lewis and several to Streets Department Communications Director Keisha McCarty-Skelton over a period of weeks. McCarty-Skelton sent an email, attributable to a “Streets Department spokesperson,” that said the department has worked to correct many of the practices that led to a lack of faith in the recycling system.

In 2019, it announced that Waste Management, now known as WM, had been selected as its recycling contractor. That ended the practice of burning recyclables. By 2021, mixing waste and recycling was no longer the norm, City officials say, though an informal survey by Billy Penn and Green Philly in 2022 found that 62 percent of respondents reported seeing some trash and recycling being mixed. Lewis has acknowledged that unauthorized mixing may still occur. When it does, residents should report it to 311.

Today, about half of the recycling from WM’s Greater Mid-Atlantic service territory goes from the company’s processing facilities to mills on the East Coast. The rest goes to other facilities, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Once WM processes and sells it, Philly’s recyclables are repurposed in much the manner residents may imagine. Tin and aluminum cans are shredded and smelted into a molten liquid before being shaped into new cans — ones that could be on a store shelf in as little as 60 days. Paper is baled and sent to mills that turn it into newsprint, cardboard, tissues or paper towels.

“Why am I going through all of this if you’re just putting [my recycling] in the dump and then burning the stuff up or something like that?”  — Lois Williams, “religious recycler”

Glass is sorted by color, then made into new bottles, downcycled into filler for construction projects or used at landfills as “alternative daily cover” — materials sprinkled over waste at landfills to prevent fires, reduce odors and prevent litter from blowing away. Glass that is heavily contaminated or broken down in a way that makes it unsuitable for manufacturing is typically used for this purpose. When I-95 collapsed last summer, construction used downcycled glass from Burlington County, New Jersey, to help repair it.

Plastics are more complicated. Type 1 plastics, like water and other beverage bottles, are downcycled into bottles or spun into fabrics. Type 2, like milk or detergent jugs, might be made into new containers, or into pipes for outdoor construction projects. Type 5 plastics, like yogurt or butter containers, become one-gallon paint tins. Regardless, plastics aren’t a great candidate for recycling. Although more consumer products have been packaged in plastics, it’s estimated that only 5 percent of plastics are actually recycled, due to structural degradation and the low cost of virgin plastics.

Why contamination remains a problem

So the city has stopped burning recyclables and it’s stopped mixing trash and recycling. That means recyclables are getting recycled … right?

Not quite. Contaminated recycling loads — those with materials that WM can’t sell to mills for recycling — are still a major problem. One that starts with Philly residents.

Once Philly’s recyclables are collected, they travel through one of WM’s materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Gatorade bottles, tin cans, cardboard boxes and other items bounce along a conveyor belt before being sorted, baled and sold. But if items like plastic bags and other non-recyclable waste make it into the stream, they get tangled up in the MRF’s sorting equipment, preventing larger items like newsprint and cardboard from being separated from smaller plastic bottles.

Companies buying recycled materials don’t want contaminated loads, which means the efforts of people like Lois Williams to carefully wash and dry items before putting them in her bin might be for naught if her fellow residents don’t also follow the rules.

“The mills that buy our paper and cardboard do not want plastics,” says John Hambrose, the communications manager for WM’s Greater Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Philly. “This forces us to either resort to a bale of material or send it to the landfill. Both of these options drive up the cost of recycling and unnecessarily consume resources.”

“A few hundred pounds of contaminants in a six-ton load of material can result in the disposal of the full load,” he adds.

In other words, just because a load of recycling makes it from a blue bin to one of WM’s facilities doesn’t mean it’s going to be recycled. Food waste, and items like plastic bags, batteries and styrofoam takeout containers can all lead to a load of recyclables being tossed in a landfill rather than processed and sold to make new materials. (WM says 16 percent of recyclable materials across all of its facilities — it doesn’t keep plant- or city-specific statistics — had to be sent to the landfill in 2022, the last year for which data was available.)

Full recycling bin outside a Philadelphia rowhome
Photo by Katherine Rapin


Are Philly’s education initiatives adequate?

Even when Philly’s recycling rate was more than 20 percent in the 2000s, many people engaged in what a spokesperson from the sanitation department calls “wish-cycling:” putting items like plastic bags or forks or styrofoam takeout containers into their bins because they want them to be recyclable even though they aren’t under the city’s current system. Now, a sanitation department spokesperson says the contamination rate needs to be low — under 0.5 percent — for recycling to be effective.

Many residents put these items into their recycling bins because they’ve heard they’re recyclable — perhaps, for example, they’ve heard of dropoff programs in other areas that take plastic bags. But Philly’s system, like those in many other cities, doesn’t take them. And even though mixing is unauthorized, seeing workers combine trash and recycling can be demoralizing. Residents who are confused about what can and can’t be recycled might just give up if education isn’t readily accessible.

“Why isn’t [recycling] working in Philly? Because we’re watching it going into the trash; because we aren’t being told how it’s supposed to be done,” says Maurice Sampson, the Eastern Pennsylvania director of the Clean Water Action who served as Philadelphia’s first recycling program administrator.

“We’ve got 1.6 million people in the city. I think we need something a little bit more robust than a PowerPoint presentation on demand” to encourage recycling. — Maurice Sampson

Philly’s Sanitation Division runs educational campaigns to reduce the amount of contamination in the city’s recycling stream. Pithy slogans like “We want 215 plastics in the 215” and flyers remind residents to keep some of the more noxious materials out of their bins. Plastic bags, greasy pizza boxes, styrofoam and wet paper are particular targets.

Sanitation Division officials will also speak at virtual and in-person community meetings to remind residents of what can and can’t be recycled. A spokesperson for the department says they’ve also run radio and TV ads, and information about what is and is not recyclable is available on the city’s website.

The city also holds public meetings of the Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Committee on the third Thursday of every other month at 3pm, according to Sampson, who has been on the committee for 39 years, though the dates listed for meetings on the website stop in 2021. (The department did not respond when this was pointed out, other than to say when the next meeting would be.) Meanwhile, Sampson says people interested in attending the next meeting on May 16 can contact city recycling program director Lewis for information on the virtual meeting.

The city’s Sanitation Division says these advertisements, as well as in-person events such as those recently held at the Philadelphia Film Office and the Block Captain Rally, help teach people what can be recycled and help rebuild trust in the system, and it credits such campaigns with boosting the amount of recycling the city collects. In February, it collected 4,000 more tons of recyclables than it did a year prior.

Sampson and other recycling activists aren’t as impressed. Part of the problem is reach: How many citizens is the Sanitation Division really speaking to at community meetings? How many people really see the flyers? The City did not respond to questions about how many meetings sanitation officials attended for educational purposes last year. Nor did they respond to questions about how many meetings they plan to attend in 2024.

“We’ve got 1.6 million people in the city. I think we need something a little bit more robust than a PowerPoint presentation on demand,” Sampson says.


This article was originally published by The Philadelphia Citizen on April 16, 2024.