Streets Department workers pick up residents' trash in spring 2022

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A year and a half after Philadelphia temporarily suspended separate collection, officials say recycling is no longer being mixed with trash. But many residents reported seeing it throughout the spring and even this summer, according to multiple anecdotes and an informal survey by Billy Penn and Green Philly.

During the height of pandemic lockdowns, when residential trash was piling up and sanitation crews found themselves short-handed, the Streets Department authorized workers to throw everything into the same compactor.

In July 2020, environmental activist Mike Ewall filed a complaint and the state Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation to the city. The Streets Department agreed to tell any workers who were still trashing recyclables to stop, according to a memo provided by the DEP.

Yet residents across the city say they still see the contents of their blue bins being tossed into the same truck as the garbage.

“They’re back to throwing everything together,” East Kensington resident Nicholas Kulick said in April. “On my block at least, both trash and recycling got collected in the same truck.”

Kulick has submitted 311 reports about mixing twice in the last couple years, he said. After his most complaint in February, Streets initially seemed to have resolved the problem, but at the end of March he noticed sanitation workers were mixing materials again. “We’ll see if it’s a one-off thing,” he added, “or if that is their new norm again after ‘fixing it’ for a few weeks.”

Over a third of respondents in an online survey of 930 people reported the same experience as Kulick, saying they’d seen mixing of trash and recycling in March or April of this year. More than 80% of respondents — who represented 47 of the city’s 48 ZIP codes — said they’d seen mixing occur between November of last year and this spring. Nearly half of those said it happened at least five times during that period.

“I would say it’s been collected separately maybe three times in the last 4 months,” wrote one Fishtown resident. A West Philly resident described mixing as happening “regularly,” and connected it to schedule: “Seems to happen when trash is late getting picked up and they are in a hurry to get it done.”

Some respondents noted a difference when people used the blue recycling bins — which can be picked up for free at one of six sanitation convenience centers around the city. “It seems the trash guys leave recycling when it’s in a blue container,” wrote resident Gregory Ruffer.

Several survey-takers also suggested neighbors could take more responsibility, and potentially help ameliorate the problem.

“The way people put out their trash in our neighborhood often makes it impossible for anyone to tell what’s recycling and what isn’t,” wrote a respondent who lives in the Point Breeze/Grays Ferry area. “I wouldn’t pin this just on the Streets guys.”

Some frustrated residents pay for private recycling pickup

The Philadelphia Streets Department has instructed workers to put recyclables in the trash several times over the last few years. In 2019, China stopped accepting contaminated recyclables from the U.S., sending the cost of recycling soaring and leading the city to temporarily send at least half of its recyclables to an incinerator. More recently, Streets has pointed to weather and contamination as reasons for combining.

That’s not the case now, officials say. This spring both city recycling director Kyle Lewis and sanitation workers union president Charles Carrington said separate recycling collection was the norm (although they acknowledged some unauthorized mixing may still occasionally occur).

By mid-April, Streets had been running separate pickups “for a number of weeks now, if not months,” Lewis said during an interview on WHYY’s Radio Times.

Residents who see differences with their own eyes find that line hard to swallow. When city officials say, ‘Trust the fact that we do recycle’… it all just seems lip service to feel like they’re a green city,” said Germantown resident Joseph Bernstein. “When in fact the trash men are not recycling.”

Bernstein’s family goes through enough cardboard boxes, glass bottles, and plastic containers to fill three blue recycling bins a week. He and his wife Tegan are enthusiastic recyclers.

“We order a ton of stuff all the time. We have a young child, another in kindergarten, and you know, it’s a delivery world right now,” said Bernstein, a real estate agent. “We’re washing out our containers and we’re breaking down our boxes. We’re going to a lot of effort to wash and sort and separate.”

They were annoyed to look out the window last fall to see city sanitation workers tossing the family’s recyclables into a garbage truck along with the trash, which would all ultimately end up in a landfill or incinerator.

Bernstein signed up with private company Rabbit Recycling, which picks up a portion of his recyclables once a month. Several survey respondents also said they’d started paying a private contractor for the service. On Bernstein’s block, he noticed the Streets Department resuming regular recycling pickup in April, but he remains skeptical of the city’s will and ability to properly handle waste.

As a taxpayer, Bernstein said, he felt like he was being defrauded.

Recycling and trash outside a home in Queen Village

Recycling rates drop to nearly half vs. pre-pandemic

The city’s overall recycling rate or diversion rate remains at historic lows. Under Pennsylvania law, cities are supposed to aim to recycle 35% of the waste they collect.

Before the pandemic, Philadelphia’s rate was 18% or 19%, but that has fallen significantly. This spring, the recycling rate was 8% or 9%, according to Lewis, the city recycling director. It’s a big drop: In summer 2018, the Streets Department collected an average of about 2,000 tons of recycling per week. In 2021, that average was down to 1,200 tons per week.

Asked about the decrease, officials cited a few factors.

Products like cardboard boxes and plastic packaging are lighter than their equivalents from a few years ago, reducing tonnage measurements. With more people working from home, the city is collecting more residential trash than before, so recycling could be making up a smaller percentage of the total. Another issue is recyclables being contaminated with plastic bags or other materials the city can’t process, which results in whole bins being thrown out. (Philly’s contamination rate this spring was 23%, down somewhat from the worst days of the pandemic.)

Larry Holley, manager of Pa. DEP’s Division of Waste Minimization and Planning, said recycling rate measurements are no longer considered useful and the agency now focuses on metrics like the energy saved, greenhouse gas emissions reduced, and jobs created by recycling.

During an online meeting earlier this year of the city’s Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Committee, officials displayed city maps color-coded by recycling rates. One of the lowest-scoring areas was Oxford Circle — the home of Ewall, the activist who filed a complaint with the state.

If the city boosted its recycling rate, it could send less trash to incinerators, reduce air pollution, and weaken arguments for keeping the region’s incinerators in operation, he argued.

“We’re number one in cancer incidence of large cities in the country, and we’re a top 10 city in terms of being an asthma capital in the metro region. Both of those things are directly related to the types of pollutants that come out of trash incinerators,” Ewall said.

Environmental groups PennEnvironment and Philadelphia Resources Council are advocating to modernize PA’s recycling law to reflect modern consumer consumption habits for other materials, too.

Sanitation workers smile as they fill a recycling truck with residents’ recycling pickup Credit: Maxine Mayer for Billy Penn and Green Philly

Could the city give residents advance notice?

Residents who notice recycling not being picked up or being mixed in with the trash should contact the city to report it, said Lewis, the Streets Department recycling director.

“If anybody is truly concerned and committed to the stewardship of the environment, they should call us and let us know as soon as possible that this is happening,” Lewis said. “They can call 311.”

Of people who indicated in Billy Penn and Green Philly’s informal survey that they’d seen mixing over the past six months, 80% said they hadn’t bothered to report it to the city.

“I have seen this done and I figure most of the time I have put in complaints about many things and nothing happens,” one survey respondent wrote. “I go great lengths in recycling and trash, yet it goes unappreciated.”

Ewall, the activist, said he started recording his trash pickups more than a year ago, and in 49 of the 54 pickups he’s documented his recycling was combined with the trash.. He also filed an official request for logs of trips by city recycling trucks. Ewall said the city told him it has no such documents, and the two sides are in mediation through the state Office of Open Records.

Ewall plans to take his evidence to the DEP and ask the agency to force the city to do a better job.

In addition to hiring more sanitation workers, he suggested Streets could make its program more efficient by collecting recycling every other week, as some Canadian cities do, or could at least notify residents on weeks when it can’t send out a recycling truck because of staff shortages.

“When it snows on a certain morning, schools can manage to let people know, ‘Hey, we’re starting school two hours late today,’” Ewall said. “How come the Streets Department … can’t do something to say, ‘Hey, if you want your recycling to be recycled, don’t put it out today.”

Streets did give advance notice at times during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. “Collection delays due to severe weather or [staff] attendance, however, do not facilitate advanced broad-scale notification,” a department spokesperson said.

Lewis, the city’s recycling director, said some people just quit recycling during the height of the pandemic and never began again. She said more residents can do their part by correctly separating out their recyclables and setting them on the curb.

“I do think that some people may have gotten disheartened,” Lewis said. “[But] we’re currently running a full, dual collection, curbside program, so they can put their recycling out. We are collecting recycling separately from trash everywhere in the city. The city has remained committed to recycling and we are asking residents to remain committed to recycling as well.”

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...