14. The State of Recycling and Trash in Philly

This show aired on Friday June 7, 2019 on PhillyCAM’s radio station WPPM 106.5 FM in Philadelphia. You can hear the audio anytime. The script is below. Produced by Meenal & Tanya.

Hello and welcome

Hello and welcome to Philly Talks Climate — where we talk about the climate crisis, how it affects Philadelphia, and how we solve this for our region. I’m Meenal Raval, and I’ll be your host. I’m joined this week by my long-time friend Tanya Seaman.

Last week

Last week we talked about how active transportation like walking and cycling is a transportation solution. This week, City Council’s Committee on Streets and Services voted on several bills in support of this, thanks to OTIS, our Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability.

As part of a Complete Streets program, 5 bike lanes were approved. On Market St & JFK Blvd, from 15th thru 20th Streets; on Richmond St; on 10th Street between Buttonwood & Callowhill; on Germantown Ave between 2nd & Master; and on 2nd St between Wood & Race.

Another bill (190467) passed increased penalties for parked vehicles blocking bike lanes, bus lanes, and bus routes — SEPTA, NJ Transit, Greyhound, Trailways, and school buses.

This is a good thing, because delaying a bus means delaying the schedules of at least 40 people, versus delaying one person in one car. And blocking bicycle lanes means forcing a cyclist to merge into automobile traffic, which is dangerous. Thank you, OTIS, for making it easier to get around by cycling and via public transit.

Also this week, the same committee agreed on seven-year contracts with private companies to accept our trash and recycling. This is not something to thank them for.

We’ll try to explain this on the show today.

What happens when we place our trash or recycling at the curb?

We’ve all seen and heard them: Trucks pulling into our blocks and alleyways each week, taking whatever we haul to the curb. These City employees working for the Streets Department then drive the collected material to one of several transfer stations within the city. They dump the material and return to complete the day’s route.

At the transfer station, the trash is compacted and loaded onto larger trucks. City employees drive these larger trucks to diversion facilities managed by a private company — whether for eventual incineration or landfilling.

Where has our trash and recycling been going?

Not many people know that for the last few years, our trash has been incinerated. In the past year, two events resulted in our recyclable materials also getting incinerated. The first was when China stopped receiving recyclable materials from the US. The second was when our Streets Department let our recycling contract lapse. Together, this resulted in the public putting out our blue bins, which the Streets Department collected, and then simply sent to an incinerator.

This week, City Council’s Committee on Streets and Services approved three bills having to do with our recycling and trash — bills 190413, 190468, 190469.

If approved by the full City Council, our recycling would be accepted by Waste Management. We used to get paid about $50 per ton for our recyclables. Now, at $104 per ton, this would cost us at least 10 million dollars a year. When items that can’t be recycled are found in the recycling stream, it contaminates the items that can be recycled, and so they can’t be recycled…

What type of items in your recycling bin cause contamination?

  • Though plastic containers numbered 1 thru 5 are accepted, plastic bags, expanded polystyrene AKA styrofoam and aseptic containers are not.
  • Though glass jars are accepted, mirrors, light bulbs, porcelain & ceramics, glass cookware, window or auto glass are not.
  • Though metal cans from soups and beans are accepted, metal cookware, wire coat hangers and appliances are not.

The recycling contract that was just approved says a lot about contamination rates — that the private company will accept upto 25% contamination with the right to incinerate, instead of recycling that material. The same contract makes no mention of how to reduce these contamination rates. Though there was a reference to an education fund, it is unclear how much that would be, or who manages it to ensure lower contamination rates.

Why is education needed? Example of pizza boxes. Intuitively cardboard and recyclable. Except that grease makes it harder to recycle. But when residents place them in trash cans, the crew won’t pickup the trash! We need consistent education — of residents, and of the Streets Department crew. 

Under this new contract, our trash will be accepted by two private companies — Waste Management and Covanta. At $64 per ton, this would cost us about 38 million dollars a year. The issue is that Covanta would incinerate our trash at facilities in the nearby suburbs of Delaware and Montgomery Counties,  

What’s so bad about incineration?

Incinerating 100 tons of trash results in 30 tons of ash and 70 tons of air pollution. The 30 tons of ash is mostly toxic heavy metals and needs to be buried in a landfill, and will eventually seep into our groundwater. And the 70 tons? That turns into air pollution, pollution that we will be breathing. And more so the folks who live near the incinerators — in nearby Delaware County, in Berks County, and in Bucks County.

Emissions from trucking our trash to landfills farther away is insignificant in comparison to emissions from incineration.

Because much of our trash is now plastic, it’s even worse to burn than in years past. Why? Because of the toxins, and because this adds to the carbon already responsible for the climate crisis.

Plastic and tires are about 47% of the carbon in our trash. When we landfill these, instead of incineration, the carbon remains sequestered, instead of overloading the atmosphere with more carbon.

Incinerators are also called waste-to-energy or waste-to-fuel plants. The Kenney administration considers this to be renewable energy. Isn’t that a good thing? No. The greenhouse gas emissions from an incinerator are much more than from even a coal-power plant.  

So, we shouldn’t be incinerating our trash. Instead, we should bury our trash in landfills. It’s a better option, for now.

Meanwhile, our Zero-Waste by 2035 goal

We looked up the definition of Zero Waste. It’s “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”  International zero-waste goals do not include incineration.

Our city has a proud goal of zero waste by 2035. They’ve even got a cabinet called the Zero Waste & Litter Cabinet. However, Mayor Kenney’s administration has interpreted zero waste as zero waste to landfill. This is why the current administration considers sending waste to incinerators to be acceptable.

So what do we do with our trash?

We realize all of us want our trash to be taken away when we place it at the curb. However, there is no such place as “away”. There is only air, water, or land to dump into.

Incinerating our trash means we’re dumping it into the air, the land, and the water. Landfilling our trash means we’re dumping it onto our land. So what are we supposed to do with our trash?

We explained some of this on an earlier show… How to get to zero waste, when we talked about legislation to eliminate single-use plastics from everyday use.

We need a real commitment to Zero Waste principles. This means divert, or do something else, with 90% of our trash, allowing no more than 10% to be landfilled. Knowing that landfills are better than incineration, we should continue landfilling our trash while we develop other methods. Incineration is ..not… an option.

Having spoken to several national consultants, we’ve found that we need to look at this problem systemically. We need to ask… What in our society creates trash? How do we reduce it? How do we repair broken items and extend their life? How do we recycle better, even up to 50% of our trash? How do we encourage economic development, which currently is built on people continuously buying things, much of which goes into the trash — now or after long-term storage? How can we do better to educate? How do we develop pilots for items not previously recycled?  

We could consider a pay-as-you-throw program — a program where recycling and compost pickup is free, and where residents are charged per bag of trash. Pay As You Throw has been proven to reduce the trash people put out by 44%. We’ve been told there’s no significant increase in illegal dumping. Surprising, yeah!

Some examples are… Local recycling facilities could close the loop and encourage local manufacturing. Local composting facilities at convenient neighborhood sites could turn our food waste into soil. Neighborhood sites could repair broken items and allow drop-off of hazardous materials. The solutions are many.

By signing these contracts, we end up with corporate interests in charge of our municipal solid waste. We need professional environmental planners in charge of executing our zero-waste goals. These broader questions are beyond the scope of the Streets Department, which is tasked with hauling and delivering the collected materials.

Yet, the Committee on Streets & Services approved continuing business as usual, believing the Kenney administration over the well-researched recommendations of their own citizens.

The problem seems to be the parochial thinking of our current administration, one that pays no heed to citizens bringing up experts who know how to solve this problem, and citizens doing their own research of best practices in other cities. It is so much easier to approve the status quo, even though it does not improve conditions in our city or solve our problems. In addition, residents who actually separate their recycling from their trash are unhappy that the City hasn’t been recycling these items.

Following zero-waste principles means never having to say we’re burning our trash, not even at waste-to-energy plants.

Engage with your Elected Reps

Concerned about the added air pollution in our region from trash incineration? The full City Council still gets to vote on this. So we just signed a petition built by the Energy Justice Network. Details on the Engage page at Philly Talks Climate.

Connect with Concerned Others

Let’s end by connecting with others concerned about the climate crisis — people growing their own food, right in the city. Food that’s fresher, and doesn’t need trucking from out of state.

Each summer, community gardeners across Philadelphia come together to celebrate the start of the growing season and shine light on the many social, health and environmental benefits these open spaces bring to Philadelphia.

On Saturday June 15th, there’s a Community Garden Bike Tour from 11 till 1:30 showcasing gardens in South Philly. This is organized by the Bicycle Coalition. 

Don’t ride a bike? Also on Saturday June 15th, there’s the Kensington Community Gardens Day Walking Tour from 11 till 1. This walk is organized by Southeastern PA Group of the Sierra Club. Details for both events on the Connect page at Philly Talks Climate.

Music & Image

Music – Philadelphia All Stars – Let’s Clean up the Ghetto – https://youtu.be/C1T6A1fFq-Y – Lyrics here

Image – Zero-Waste-Hierarchy-7.0-graphic-board-approved-June-21-2018.png


  • The proposed trash contracts are attached to bills 190468 & 190469 (with Covanta and Waste Management).
  • The proposed recycling contract with Waste Management is attached to bill 190413.
  • Background info on the issue, especially about incineration is here: energyjustice.net/pa/philly
  • The Philadelphia Council Committee of Streets & Services consists of Squilla (D1), Sanchez (D7), Oh, Johnson (D2), Bass (D8), Greenlee, Taubenberger who have been tasked to deal with all matters relating to the Streets Department.

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