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Phila. to Unveil Incentive-based Recycling Plan

Written by Sandy Bauers, Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: December 2, 2009

Philadelphia will unveil its latest ambitious recycling initiative Thursday, an incentive-based program that city officials say could reward households $240 a year for their participation and save the city millions of dollars in landfill fees.

The program, which begins in February in north Philadelphia and will be rolled out to a new section of the city every month after that, is expected to increase the city's recycling rate dramatically by the end of next year.

Based on the total amount recycled in their community, residents will earn points that can be redeemed for discount coupons or gift cards for hundreds of local and national businesses, including supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants and museums.

Points also can be used to make charitable contributions or help fund $5,000 "green" grants for city schools.

In an interview Wednesday, Mayor Nutter called the new program "a triple win. It's a win for the city because we save money by recycling. Citizens save money. And businesses get more customers coming in because of the discount cards."

He said the program - a federal grant is funding most of its startup costs - "puts real rewards, real money in the hands of citizens at a time when they need it most."

Longtime Streets Department critic Maurice Sampson, who owns the waste management company, Niche Recycling Inc., called the plan "a brilliant concept. My hat's off to everyone involved."

"I think Philadelphians are really going to respond well to this," he added. "It answers that question, 'What's in it for me?'"

Right now, the city pays $64 a ton to landfill its waste. It pays only 33 cents a ton to send recyclables to the Blue Mountain sorting facility.

But Streets Commissioner Clarena I.W. Tolson said the market for recyclables is currently low. In the past, when commodity prices were higher, the city has been paid as much as $44 a ton for recyclables - a $108 differential between recycling and landfilling.

In a city with 580,000 tons of waste a year, "those are significant numbers," she said.

The program, which will resemble successful efforts in Cherry Hill and other suburbs, is a partnership with Recyclebank, a company that was co-founded by former area resident and 1993 Germantown Academy graduate Ron Gonen.

Gonen said that the Philadelphia partnership was especially gratifying since it was the city that gave his fledgling company its first business with a pilot program instituted in 2005.

"They're the ones that gave us a chance," Gonen said. "We owe them a lot."

Recyclebank, a for-profit company, now provides services to more than 1 million members in 20 states - including more than two dozen municipalities in this region - and the United Kingdom.

The Philadelphia program will be the largest in the U.S., according to the the city and the company.

Recycling in the city was begun in 1989, and rates remained among the lowest in the nation for urban areas. When Nutter took office, it was a lackluster 7 percent.

At that time, recyclables were picked up only every other week, sometimes not even on the same day as the trash, and residents had to sort recyclables - paper separate from plastic, for instance.

The nonprofit Recycling Alliance of Philadelphia amassed 13,000 signatures on a petition asking for weekly pick-up and single-stream recycling, in which all recyclables can be put into one bin.

The city did both, and the recycling rate increased to 12.4 percent by July, the end of fiscal 2009, saving the city $4.8 million in landfill costs.

In October, the rate was an all-time high of 15.6 percent.

Nutter said he was confident that, with the new program, the city would meet its goals of a 20 percent diversion rate by the end of 2011, and a 25 percent rate by 2015.

The Alliance petition also asked the city to institute incentive-based recycling with Recyclebank, but for several years, Tolson maintained that the economics weren't right.

The program at that point would have logged the weight of each household's recyclables, a time-consuming effort that by Tolson's calculations would have added $4.5 million to the department's budget in overtime costs.

Recyclebank also wanted part of its fees up front.

The new program is better financially, Tolson said, and is much simpler, making it easier for people to participate.

A federal grant of $708,400 is paying for the equipment - radio tags for household bins and equipment on the trucks that can "read" the tags - and Recyclebank is funding other initial costs.

The company won't be paid until recycling rates increase, said Gonen. At that point, it will get between 30 and 65 percent of the money the city saves on avoided landfill fees, based on how much recycling rates actually increase.

"So we are motivated to make sure everyone recycles as much as possible," Gonen said.

Residents can sign up now online ( or by phone (1-888-769-7960), which will earn them 100 bonus points for early registration.

They will receive a free radio tag by mail that identifies each participating home and can be affixed to any hard-sided container. (In other communities, Recyclebank has provided containers, but that costs more money and led to complaints that the bins were too big, too small or an unsightly color.)

They can monitor, redeem or donate their points online or by phone in a process the city says is comparable to shopping online.

The city will tally recycling amounts not by household, but by the community overall, making it pointless to, say, steal a neighbor's recyclables.

Katie Edwards, a recycling advocate at the Clean Air Council and a member of the Alliance, said the neighborhood-based program also will help build community.

"The easiest way to spread the word, I feel, is neighbor to neighbor, from a trusted source," she said.

In the new Philadelphia program, households will also earn points based on reductions in waste sent to landfills. Tolson said this would encourage people to buy in bulk, look for items with less packaging and take other steps to reduce their waste.

That impressed Lori Braunstein, executive director of Sustainable Cherry Hill, an independent nonprofit.

Recyclebank began a program in the township in 2008. In the first year, recycling increased 100 percent and the township saved $700,000 in waste disposal fees.

Residents earned more than 19 million bonus points, redeemable for $500,000 in products and services.

Braunstein said residents were excited about the incentives, but many she's talked to said they had not yet bothered to redeem them. They just liked the idea.

But when the community put out a challenge, asking people to donate their points to several "green" school projects, they responded enthusiastically, Braunstein said.

Within days, Cherry Hill East High School had $5,000 for a greenhouse and an organic gardening program.

Click here to read the story at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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