September 12, 2010

Recycling in the big cities

As Dustin Hoffman was advised in The Graduate . . . "Plastics!"

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently signed legislation that will significantly expand the city’s recycling program to include all rigid plastic containers for recycling. Bring on the yogurt tubs, flower pots and medicine bottles! That may mean more than 8000 more pounds of plastics annually, in addition to plastic 1 and 2 that are already collected. The only catch is that it won't begin until a new recycling facility in Brooklyn is completed--probaby not until 2012.

MEANWHILE in Philadelphia,  I learned that the City of Brotherly Love now will accept all 1 through 7 plastics. The city's recycling rate used to be among the lowest for large cities, so this is laudable. In 2006, Philly households recycled only about 5.5 percent of their waste. That rate has risen to 16 percent as the city has added materials, moved to weekly collections, and switched to "single-stream" recycling, in which all items can be placed into one bin.

In 2009, the city hired RecycleBank, which operates a program that gives residents coupons and other rewards for recycling. They don't expect a huge increase in tonnage since these additional plastics are light--supposedly categories 3 to 7 amount to only 4 percent of the waste stream. In addition to Philly, RecycleBank is a nifty program that seems to be succeeding in Hartford, CT; Wilmington, DE; Chicago, IL; Atlanta, GA; Albuquerque, NM and Plano, TX.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the city also rebid its recycling contract, getting more favorable rates. "It not only saves $68 a ton in landfill costs but also recoups $51.37 a ton for recyclables from Waste Management Inc., based in Houston." That savings will likely exceed $400,000.

Adding numbers 3 through 7 to the municipal recycling stream is a growing trend. Washington State expanded to recycling all plastics in 2008 when a local market for the commodity opened up. In the Philly region, some suburban towns expanded two years ago when the Allied Waste sorting facility in King of Prussia completed a $5 million upgrade. Even small township Haverford started recycling 1 through 7. The first year, the township increased its recycling by 400 tons and saved residents about $150,000 through lower tipping fees and higher payments for the recycled materials. Neighboring Radnor expanded to single-stream recycling and added all the plastics categories in February of 2010. Pottstown's nonprofit Recycling Services Inc. is still renowned among recycling addicts for the variety of materials it accepts, including waxed juice cartons and fishing line.

Across the Delaware River in N.J., Collingswood claims to be the only municipality in Camden County to recycle all plastics. Their hauler does not accept 3-and-up plastics. But borough residents raised such a ruckus that officials installed a special dumpster at a drop-off site. In the first five months, Collingswood collected seven tons of plastics. This year, they predict that the town will collect 25 to 30 tons, that would otherwise cost $2,000 to dispose in a landfill.

The higher-numbered plastics were always recyclable, but sorting was expensive and the commodity market was low. Now prices are rising, so more communities are recycling more plastics. Partly due to the extra categories now accepted in more cities, recycling of plastics rose 11 percent from 2007 to 2008, the last year for which nationwide statistics are available. The list of haulers accepting all numbers of plastics keeps expanding.

Still, environmentalists are not all gung-ho on increased plastics recycling. They worry it will lull consumers into complacency about all the packaging they buy. Their golden rule is now Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle as a Last Resort.

Another thorny problem is that many of the higher-number plastics are sent to China for further sorting and reuse. Transporting all that plastic raises concerns about the carbon footprint, plus the human-rights aspect of using cheap labor with minimal environmental protections.

When it comes to being reused, each has a different melting point. So contamination can cause a mess. So that's part of the motivation for a city to collect all the plastics. Then consumers don't need to make the distinctions.

No word yet on if or when Virginia residents can toss ALL plastics into our curbside bins.