Philly still collects recycling, but it only recycles about half of what it collects

Pat Loeb
December 31, 2018 - 4:00 am
Changes in the recycling market have prompted Philadelphia to temporarily give up on processing at least half of the recyclables it collects at curbside.

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Philadelphia Streets Department continues to collect recycling from every part of the city, but for the last few months, only about half of it has actually been getting recycled. That's because of a sea change in the recycling market that will mean new rules for recycling in the New Year. 

Photos of floating islands of plastic in the Pacific had the desired effect: The international community put pressure on China to police its waste disposal. In July, China stopped accepting foreign trash and contaminated recycling, which includes greasy pizza boxes, styrofoam and plastic bags. 

Mike Ewall of the Energy Justice Network says Philadelphia was vulnerable to the ban because it does single stream recycling.

"We take all of our paper and bottles and cans and mix them together and expect them to be sorted out into market quality materials. Usually that doesn't work very well," he said.  

When the city's recycling contract expired in September, the processor quadrupled the price, so the city's gone back to the drawing board, and in the meantime processes only the recycling from areas where there's the least contamination.

"We're faced with a very new dynamic in recycling," said Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams, who ran smack into the new dynamic when the city's recycling contract expired, in which the city had been paying about $40 per ton. 

"Unfortunately, they offered us a price that was astronomical. It was $170 per ton," said Williams. 

The city collects about 100,000 tons of recycling per year, so rather than paying an additional $13 million per year, Williams sought new bids, and the city has been on a temporary contract in the meantime.

To make the temporary contract affordable, the city is sending recycling only from parts of the city where there's little contamination of recyclables, largely the Northeast and Northwest. Recycling from most everywhere else is sent to the incinerator with the trash. 

Williams says when the city gets a new long-term contract, it will come with a public education program about how to keep recycling clean enough to make it affordable.