Inquirer: Experiment with recycling rewards begins

By Sandy Bauers
The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 1, 2010

The greedy machinery thumps, clanks, whirs and growls.

Conveyor belts whisk along plastic bottles. Massive disks lift slabs of cardboard. A magnet plucks out metal cans.

Every day, 150 trucks pull up to the rear of the cavernous Blue Mountain facility in Grays Ferry and disgorge mountains of recyclables from the city and portions of the suburbs. Last year, it totaled 120,000 tons – enough to fill Lincoln Financial Field from the turf to the top row seven times over.

The place is about to get more.

Today, Philadelphia begins its latest experiment in trying to goose the household recycling rate toward 25 percent.

An awards-based program run by RecycleBank, a national company started by Germantown Academy graduate Ron Gonen, is debuting in North Philadelphia. It will expand to the rest of the city month by month.
Its proponents say recycling is not only good for the environment by conserving resources and saving landfill space, it’s also economical.

Currently, the city pays $64 a ton to landfill material, but Blue Mountain pays the city $5.03 a ton for recyclables – a $69.03 differential.

“A year ago at this time, we were paying $32 a ton” to Blue Mountain, says Scott McGrath, the city’s acting recycling coordinator. “It’s a huge improvement. Some of the commodity markets have improved as much as 30 to 40 percent over the past year.”

In the early days of recycling, people had to sort everything into different bins, even to the point of separating glass by color.

Now, the technology has progressed so that “single-stream recycling” is possible.

The thinking is that people will recycle more stuff if it’s more convenient. If they don’t have to sort it.

Indeed, ever since the city instituted single-stream recycling and weekly pickup on the same day that trash is collected, the recycling rate has steadily risen. In December, the city set another new record, collecting 9,442 tons of recyclables for a diversion rate of 18 percent, up from 7 percent at the start of 2008.

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