“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
-R. Buckminster Fuller
Philadelphia’s recycling system is broken. It has been broken for a long time and if finding the solution is left to the current operators of the system, it will never be fixed.
Many people attribute Philadelphia’s broken recycling system, along with the nation’s, to 2018 when China enacted the National Sword policy. After years of cornering the market on taking the world’s recycling, China decided that the recycling contamination (that is, how dirty the recyclables are) was too high, and their need for foreign recyclable materials was too low to continue taking the world’s dirty recycling. So in one fell swoop, China told the world enough was enough. And since the US sent a majority of its recycling to China, the markets were turned on their heads. Grid Magazine’s January 2019 cover story, aptly titled Dumpster Fire, revealed that due to a lack of proactive planning, a contract lapse and the inability to find a new operator in a post-National Sword market, Philadelphia’s Streets Department resorted to burning half of Philly’s recycling.
But Philadelphia’s recycling system was broken long before that because it never adhered to the cardinal rule of recycling: You can recycle anything if you have a process, the right infrastructure, and a market.
Like most of the country, Philadelphia implemented a single-stream recycling system in 2007 with the hope that it would increase participation and efficiency. Single stream recycling is when all recyclable materials are thrown into the same bin without sorting. It had the intended effect; participation and efficiency increased. The recycling participation rate jumped from 6% before single stream was implemented to 20% post-implementation.
However, what also increased was the amount of contaminated materials in our city’s municipal recycling stream as well as the quantity of materials that can’t actually be recycled. The plastics industry performs a sleight of hand when it places that comforting three arrowed triangle symbol (called “chasing arrows”) with a number from 1 to 7 in the center on nearly every piece of plastic created. The ruse is that many of those materials aren’t actually recycled. In reality, Philadelphia’s recycling system can only truly recycle two of those seven numbers—#1 and #2 plastics. So while participation and the quantity of collected materials increased, it was at the expense of straining a system that can’t actually find a market for those materials. It made Philadelphians complicit in a pervasive campaign of greenwashing.
The Right Infrastructure
Any system needs the right infrastructure—physical, technological and human—to succeed, and Philadelphia has none of those.
Starting with collection, yes, it is much more efficient for the Streets Department to run one set of trucks to pick up all of Philly’s recyclable material. But when glass is collected with paper, and food packaging is collected with food waste still on it, that leads to a stew of contaminated recycling. Crushed glass can’t be separated from small bits of paper. Paper is covered with residual liquids and food. And even if the paper was somehow spared, all it takes is a rainy day in a city that doesn’t provide recycling cans with lids for the paper to become a wet, unrecoverable mess. So that single truck is actually terrible for recovering materials.
Additionally, as Green Philly reported in September 2020, trucks lack onboard GPS. Routes are assigned by paper spreadsheet, making it virtually impossible to adapt to changing waste patterns in a timely manner. This leads to crises such as the one Philadelphia experienced in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic caused waste volumes to increase and caught a flat-footed Streets Department unable to collect the trash and recycling—in some neighborhoods, for over a month.
Finally, a chronically understaffed Recycling Office with no planning capacity makes it impossible for the City to simply keep up with recycling, let alone innovate to mitigate future crises. Over the past two decades, the Recycling Office has averaged 1-2 personnel (and sometimes zero) for a city of 1.5 million people. For comparison, San Antonio, which is comparably sized, boasted a recycling staff of twenty-two pre-pandemic. It’s no wonder that Philadelphia’s recycling system is broken when, at times, there is literally no one there to manage it.
Let’s say that, somehow, recyclable materials do make it through the material recovery facility that the City contracts with. There’s no guarantee that these materials are actually recycled. At its heart, recycling is an economic system. Recycled materials are commodities, and the prices for those commodities fluctuate due to market conditions and good old supply and demand. If markets find a use for recycled materials (such as in the cases of aluminum, cardboard, and plastics #1 and #2), and they’re worth an attractive price, then they get recycled. If the markets don’t work in a recycled material’s favor, then it gets scrapped.
Going back to pre-2018, when most of Philadelphia’s recycling was headed for China, only about 9% of the plastic produced was actually recycled, according to PBS Frontline. Our current system is run by vertically-integrated waste management companies that also own landfills and incinerators, and they don’t make money by finding real value for the material. They make money by collecting as much material as they can for a hefty tipping fee and finding the cheapest place possible to send the material.
With Philadelphia’s broken process and market conditions, it’s quite apparent that the solution doesn’t exist in the current system. What’s needed is a system where the producer and consumer can work in an interdependent and mutually beneficial way. It’s a system where the consumer efficiently uses single materials and sends them back to the producer for reuse or recycling rather than throwing them in a catch-all bin, even a “recycling bin.” And what’s also needed are infrastructure and economically viable markets for the reuse and recycling of these materials.
We can fix this.
But the businesses in this marketplace can’t do it alone. Imagine if we were able to take even ten percent of the $45 million Philadelphia city government spends each year on trash and recycling and shifted that money to businesses operating with circular principles. That would be $4.5 million invested in circular businesses and our burgeoning circular economy.