Philadelphia has had a citywide municipal recycling program with curbside collection since 1989. It’s a single-stream process (i.e. you throw everything into one bin) and there’s a pickup scheduled every week.
Streets Department workers collected an average of 1,200 tons of recycling weekly last year, which is less than in years past. As of July, Philly’s recycling rates are at a historic low point, making up just 9% of waste collected, compared to 18% a few years ago.
Part of the drop is because advances in materials means a lot of things that can be recycled simply weigh less, according to city officials. Recycling has also become more costly. Instead of being able to sell the materials — China was the major buyer — Philly now has to pay for recycling to be taken off the city’s hands.
Then there’s the question of whether the city is mixing recyclables with trash. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, collection crews were told they could combine trash and recycling because they were dealing with understaffing issues. Later in 2020, the city blamed bad weather for contaminating recycled materials before pick-up, causing them to be thrown in with the trash. Residents say they still see collection crews mixing trash and recycling sometimes, even though the city says this practice stopped months ago.
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Here’s everything you need to know about how to recycle in Philadelphia.
How to get a bin
Philadelphia’s Department of Streets provides free recycling bins for all city residents. There’s a limit of two per address per year.
If you need one, you can pick it up (one per trip) at any of these six sanitation convenience centers:
- Port Richmond: 3901 Delaware Ave., 215-685-1358
- West Philadelphia: 5100 Grays Ave., 215-685-2600
- Strawberry Mansion: 2601 W. Glenwood Ave., 215-685-3955
- Southwest Philadelphia: 3303 S. 63rd St., 215-685-4290
- Northwest Philadelphia: Domino Lane & Umbria St., 215-685-2502
- Northeast Philadelphia: State Rd. & Ashburner St., 215-685-8072
The centers are open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but the blue bins are in high demand — so the city recommends calling before you go to make sure there are bins available at that location.
You can also use any container that is less than 32 gallons and less than 40 pounds.
You’ll probably want to mark it to make clear it’s for recycling, since trash and recycling are collected on the same day. Also a good practice when you get a new bin: Write your address on the exterior to claim it as yours, in case Streets workers happen to put it down outside someone else’s home.
When to put it outside
Recycling is supposed to be collected the same day of the week your trash is collected. Find the day for your address here. (Note that if Monday is a holiday, the whole week’s schedule shifts forward by one day.)
You should place recycling outside in a bin before 7 a.m. on collection day to make sure you don’t miss the trucks. The city also asks that you refrain from putting trash and recycling out too early — before 7 p.m. the night before collection day from April through September, or 5 p.m. from October through March.
What to recycle
- Plastics (food containers, drink bottles, jars, pump and spray bottles)
- Paper (newspapers, magazines, junk mail, books, paper bags)
- Metals (cans, aluminum baking dishes, aerosol cans)
- Cardboard (corrugated boxes, egg cartons, shipping boxes)
- Cartons (milk, juice, wine, soup)
No matter what it is, make sure to clean it first
Make sure recyclables are clean and dry
Items you’re setting out for recycling should have no food or liquid on or in them. If items can’t be fully cleaned, they can’t be recycled.
Including a greasy pizza box in the mix can ruin a whole batch of recycling, the Streets Department noted in 2017.
Be sure to let any containers dry before tossing them in the bin, so they don’t wet or soil your paper recyclables. Officials recommend getting a lid for your recycling bin so paper and cardboard don’t get wet while sitting outside waiting for collection.
What not to put in your recycling bin
There’s a whole list of things you might think are recyclable that shouldn’t go in your bin.
- Plastic bags (They can break the recycling processing machines.)
- Needles and syringes (They’re a danger to recycling workers. Follow these tips to dispose of them safely.)
- Metal hangers
- Things that can tangle, like hoses, cords, ropes and chains
- Flammables, like propane tanks, rechargeable batteries and fuel containers
- Disposable plates, cups and takeout containers
- Greasy or food-soiled paper and cardboard
- Tissues, paper towels and napkins
- Light bulbs
- Cassette tapes (VHS and audio)
- Pots and pans
Make sure to collapse all cardboard boxes and remove packing materials like styrofoam peanuts or bubble wrap.
If you’re not sure whether an item is recyclable, just put it in the trash to avoid contaminating the rest of your recyclables, the Streets Department advises. They even provide a motto: “When in doubt, keep it out.”
Other ways to recycle some of those things
Some of these things can be recycled in other ways.
PECO has an appliance recycling program, and you can even get a rebate if your old item qualifies.
Plastic bags can be dropped off at grocery stores that have specially marked bins for bag recycling. Check out bagandfilmrecycling.org for a map of locations.
Some shipping and mail companies take packing peanuts, and certain private recycling companies take styrofoam items. Northeast Foam Recycling in Chalfont takes #6 styrofoam specifically, for free. Rabbit Recycling, a private recycling company with subscription and on-demand services, accepts styrofoam.
You can donate clothing and housewares to various organizations for reuse. If it’s no longer wearable, you could give it to a textile recycling program.
This interactive tool from the city can help you find textile recycling locations, donation drop-off locations, and other options for responsibly disposing of the items you no longer need. And here’s a list of services, created by the city.
Companies that pick up recycling for a fee
Here are some Philadelphia companies that provide recycling pickup services to individuals and/or businesses. The items they accept differ, so be sure to check with them about requirements.
- Rabbit Recycling
- Philadelphia Recycling Company
- Athena Contracting
- John D’orazio and Sons, Inc.
- Philly-Wide Waste and Recycling Co.
- PolyGreen America (plastic)
- Newman & Company, Inc. (paper)
- Republic Services
- RoadRunner Recycling
- Tri-State Waste & Recycling
- United States Recycling, Inc.
- Waste Management