Advocates suggest recycling overhaul to address ‘growing waste crisis’ in Pa.

The Philadelphia Streets Department and environmental groups announced a plan to increase recycling in the city on May 26, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Streets Department and environmental groups announced a plan to increase recycling in the city on May 26, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Environmental advocates say Pennsylvania is in a “growing waste crisis.” They blame a decades-old recycling law, and are recommending a slate of legislative changes.

“We live in a much different world than we did in 1988,” said Darren Spielman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council, referring to the year Pa.’s recycling law was signed. “The wastestream has changed, and we have new challenges for the well-being of Pennsylvania, for our environment, for our health, for our economy. We need to do better.”

The advocacy groups Pennsylvania Resources Council and PennEnvironment released a report this week that charts a new “roadmap” for recycling in Pa. It includes over a dozen recommendations that would require new programs, new legislation or amendments to state law. It also concludes that the state is failing to meet the goals set in its recycling law, with ballooning waste, dwindling education efforts, and inadequate data collection.

Philadelphia’s Streets Department joined environmental groups outside City Hall, announcing a plan to increase the rate of recycling in the city on May 26, 2022. From left: Scott McGrath, Environmental Services Director for the Streets Department; Darren Spielman, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council; Faran Savitz, zero-waste advocate with PednnEnvironement; Kyle Lewis,Recycling Director for the Streets Department; Pa. state representative Mike Zabel. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
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The report finds that under current law, fewer than 500 Pa. municipalities are required to offer recycling. Close to 600 additional municipalities offer voluntary curbside recycling programs, but these are not required to meet state standards. Roughly 6% of Pennsylvanians do not have access to a municipal recycling program, according to the report.

“Only the largest municipalities are mandated to have curbside collection,” said Faran Savitz, a zero waste advocate with PennEnvironment.  “But if we expand that to include all our municipalities, it’ll be easier and more efficient for all Pennsylvanians to safely recycle their waste.”

The Philadelphia Streets Department and environmental groups announced a plan to increase recycling in the city on May 26, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Other recommendations include creating a new landfill ban on highly recyclable items like aluminum cans and creating more incentives for food waste composting programs.

The advocates are also throwing their support behind an effort by Delaware County State Rep. Mike Zabel to expand recycling options for electronics waste.

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“If you’re like me and a lot of people I know, somewhere in your house or your apartment is a junk drawer or a box full of electronics that you didn’t throw out because that felt wrong, but you didn’t know what to do with them,” Zabel said. “Right now, recycling electronics is expensive and it’s hard to do. You probably have to go search for it on the computer or hope that Philadelphia or your local municipality is sponsoring a program to run it. We want to make it easy.”

Officials with the city of Philadelphia also support this effort. The city offers drop-off sites for electronics waste. But officials say recycling “e-waste” is expensive, and the costs would be lower if other municipalities joined in.

“We collect close to 2 million pounds of electronics at our drop-off centers,” said Scott McGrath, environmental services director with the Philadelphia Streets Department. “Unfortunately, it’s very expensive. A lot of communities around us have just stopped doing it because they just can’t afford to do it.”

The Philadelphia Streets Department and environmental groups announced a plan to increase recycling in the city on May 26, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philly’s curbside recycling program has also faced challenges. In recent years, the city has been criticized for mixing some recycling in with trash, because of costs and staffing issues.

But officials say they’re separating trash and recycling again — and that residents should keep recycling.

“The markets for recycling are good,” said Kyle Lewis, recycling director with the Streets Department. “We need people to recycle not only because it’s the law, but because it provides feedstock for making new materials … as opposed to having to pull that feedstock out of the earth.”

“There’s not really any reason that Philadelphians should not recycle,” she added.

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