City dumps RecycleBank

Rolls out single stream program

By Jennifer Katz
Chesnut Hill Local, July 10, 2008

Philadelphia's single-stream recycling program reached its final rollout stage in Northwest Philadelphia on July 7, but the convenience for Chestnut Hill residents was tempered by news that the community stands to lose the popular RecycleBank program.

Single-stream recycling means that homeowners will be able to put all recyclables in one container instead of separating them by type, and the city's program will now accept items, such as plastic and corrugated cardboard, that previously were exempt.

But the more than 1,100 community residents who are participants in RecycleBank have been single-streaming for three years and stand to lose the rewards they receive for their efforts.

Scott McGrath, recycling coordinator for the Streets Department said RecycleBank, an incentive-based pilot program that has been operating in Chestnut Hill and West Oak Lane since early 2005, will come to an end in a month or so.

œThere is no deadline right now, McGrath said. œBut the pilot program will not be continued.

Scott Lamb, chief operating officer of RecycleBank, said no one from either the Streets Department or the Mayor's Office informed the company of the decision to discontinue the pilot.

œIt's news to us, Lamb said.

RecycleBank's program provides homeowners with incentives based on the amount of recycling they contribute. A select group of about 2,300 households received 64-gallon wheeled-containers (the size of a average trash bin) to hold all curbside recyclables.

RecycleBank's fleet would then collect the materials, weighing the bin each time and crediting the household. Participants would then be able to redeem rewards such as gift certificates to Starbucks or Acme. According to RecycleBank, a sample of households participating in its program showed an increase in the recycling rate of about 30 percent in Chestnut Hill and about 70 percent in West Oak Lane.

Chestnut Hill has the highest recycling rate in the city's program, McGrath said, with a consistent rate of 20 percent or more.

œChestnut Hill is the star recycling area, he said. œIt's a good model for the rest of the city.

Many in Philadelphia, including the RecycleBank company that is based here, thought the program was the future of recycling in the city. So much so, the company said, that it agreed to do the pilot without a contract and has, in fact, never been compensated by the city.

Maurice Sampson, owner of Niche Recycling, Inc., a veteran recycling advocate who has worked for more than 20 years in the field, said the city is headed in the right direction but choosing the wrong way to get there.

œThis is a longstanding step that needed to be made, Sampson said. œBut RecycleBank is the way to get people to recycle more.

Sampson points to the success RecycleBank has had in places like Wilmington, where in just six months the recycling rate has grown to 40 percent. The company also handles recycling in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and Whitemarsh in Montgomery County among other municipalities in the tri-state area.

œIt's taken us (in Philadelphia) 20 years to get to 8 percent, he said.

McGrath said the city's program, which started in the Northeast in 2006, has had an impact on the recycling rate.

œSwitching to single-stream has made a huge increase in the tonnage, McGrath said.

Overall the rate is up 35 percent and in South Philadelphia it is up 45 to 50 percent, he said.

Sampson said those numbers are misleading because they refer to the amount of recyclables generated by those who recycle, which is only eight percent of the city's population.

The city counts by the tonnage generated, said McGrath, because it does not have the manpower to count by set-outs (the number of recycling bins put on the curb each week).

For the last three years, the city has been asked about implementing RecycleBank citywide, but McGrath said the program would be cost-prohibitive.

œThe problem is time, he said.

RecycleBank trucks use semi-automated collection: an arm lifts the containers and empties them into the back of the truck. According to McGrath, there are two problems with this. The first is that people cannot lift the 64-gallon containers and the second is that it adds an additional 20 to 25 seconds to the collection time for each household. It would increase overall collection time by two hours a day, meaning that the city would have to add more trucks and manpower to its fleet.

Sampson disagrees, questioning the cost-efficiency of the city's program.

œThis (they city's single-stream program) is not going to save money, it is going to cost money, Sampson said. œThey are adding additional crews now to pick up more recycling, and they are not decreasing the number of crews to pick up trash.

McGrath said that while that is true at the moment, the city intends to monitor the tonnage on both sides and make adjustments where necessary. McGrath also said the city was not shutting the door on RecycleBank entirely.

œWe are still open to hearing ideas from them to address this, McGrath said. œBut for now the (city's) single-stream recycling program will not cost the city more.

For the moment, McGrath said the number of trucks would stay the same. At some point, if the amount of recycling increases, the department will move trucks from trash to recycling.

The Streets Department has spent the last two years transitioning its fleet from dual stream recycling trucks to single-stream compactor trucks. The program provides collection service for all curbside recyclables in one bin without separating materials. As of July 7, the city completed the transition of its fleet to single-stream compactor trucks.

œIt makes it easier and more convenient for people to recycle, McGrath said of the single-stream program.

The biggest change for residents will be placing plastics and cardboard in their usual recycle bins curbside. Not all plastics are recyclable, McGrath said ” only types 1 (such as bottles) and 2 (such as laundry detergent containers).

McGrath said households currently participating in RecycleBank would receive 32-gallon bins to replace their current bins. He also said that residents who do not currently have a recycle bin (a blue rectangular plastic bin with the recycling symbol on the side) could either pick one up at the Citizens Drop Off Center on Domino Lane in Roxborough or use any hard sided container and mark it for recycling. The department also has stickers available to mark containers as well.

Further, on July 19, the last day of recycling sponsored by Weaver's Way Co-op, held behind Engine Co. 9 at Germantown Avenue and Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy, 200 bins will be made available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Residents will be able to pick up one for each household.

Some items still cannot be recycled curbside, such as milk or juice cartons, mirror glass, plate glass and compact fluorescent bulbs.

Contact Associate Editor Jennifer Katz at 215-248-8804 or