Of all the things that disappoint Brady Russell when it comes to Philly’s handling of trash — and there are many — the Recycling Rewards program stands out. “You can’t really get anything out of Recycling Rewards that you couldn’t get just by being a coupon clipper,” says Russell, Eastern Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action.
Implemented in 2010 and run by the city and the private company RecycleBank, the program is meant to incentivize recycling. Residents get a sticker to put on their recycling bin, which is automatically scanned when emptied. Based on their area’s tally, people are awarded points to redeem coupons online. “I used to check [the site] a lot, but I could never find anything I wanted,” says Russell. “When my recycling bin got stolen about a year ago, I never bothered to ask for a new sticker.”
Yet the city continues to tout Recycling Rewards. The just-released “Greenworks Update and Progress Report 2012” proclaims: “In spring 2012, more than 185,000 households were enrolled … a 45 percent increase in enrollment over one year.”
What’s not mentioned in the report: the curbside recycling rate. After expanding the types of materials that can be recycled and implementing single-stream recycling, the curbside rate climbed from around 7 percent in 2007 to an estimated 18 percent to 20 percent last year. Then, it plateaued.
San Francisco diverted 78 percent of its residential and commercial trash from landfills last year through mandatory recycling and food-waste collection. Philly’s diversion rate was 72 percent — but more than a third of that wasn’t recycled or composted, but incinerated. The city just signed a new contract for even more solid-waste incineration, over objections from environmental groups. Alex Dews with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability admits burning trash is far from ideal, but it creates fewer emissions and lower transportation costs than putting trash in landfills. As for the city collecting organic waste, that’s not going to happen, says Dews, until there’s a commercial composting facility nearby.
Brady wants the city to put money toward improving Recycling Rewards benefits. (Some current rewards: $1 off two Bumble Bee products; $6 off two Olive Garden entrées.) The $1.7 million the city does put into the program goes to operating costs.
It’s sad that the benefits aren’t enough to make even an environmental group’s director want to participate. If whoever stole Russell’s bin is using it for recycling, “I’m probably still earning points off it,” he says. “But I honestly haven’t even checked.”