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Q&A with Phil Bresee: Philadelphia’s Recycling Director
Philly

Q&A with Phil Bresee: Philadelphia’s Recycling Director

Philadelphia Director of Recycling Phil BreseeWe all love those blue bins to stash our recyclables in to feel better about our collective waste on trash day. But who monitors how much Philly is recycling overall? 

Director of Recycling Phil Bresee arrived in Philly July 2012, with the mission to increase recycling participation and improve our city’s ‘green’ efforts. A Maryland native,  Bresee got his start in Frederick and then Howard County, Maryland prior to moving to Florida in 2004. He’s clearly passionate about the cause, which was apparent for those who saw his recent Nerd Nite presentation. 

We sat down with Phil recently to talk trash, recycling and Philly overall. 

Green Philly Blog: Mayor Nutter has focused on environmental issues (including recycling) in his Greenworks Campaign since his election in 2007. With two years to go in office, what recycling progress have you seen in 2013 compared to his start?

Phil Bresee: Recycling has made enormous progress during this period, in fact, a 200% increase! In 2007, our curbside recycling program diverted just 45,000 tons of recyclables compared to the 122,000 tons we diverted in the City’s Fiscal Year 2013 (Philly’s fiscal year runs July – June).

Operational changes have made the program easier for residents to participate in, including moving to weekly pickup (vs. every other week), single-stream, larger recycling bins, and adding more recyclables to the list. I believe our Philly Recycling Rewards program has played an important role too, not just by incentivizing residents to participate, but also through community outreach and brand building.

Philadelphia’s private and institutional sector recycling infrastructure has also grown immensely in this time: 1st-class recycling processing facilities (MRFs), innovative programs to collect and compost food waste, and more companies and institutions focusing on making their ways of doing business much more sustainable.

Green Philly Blog:  Is recycling required in Philadelphia?

Phil Bresee: Yes! All municipalities in the commonwealth with more than 5,000 residents are required to have mandatory recycling programs or ordinances for both residents and businesses. We first started requiring residential recycling in the early 1990s, and our business recycling ordinance was passed in 1994. Outreach, engagement and carrots are the best ways to get residents and businesses to recycle, although we do carry a stick too through our ability to issue citations.

Green Philly Blog: What would you say to ‘recycling deniers’ who think it’s inefficient and doesn’t work?

Phil Bresee: I’d say it’s our greatest environmental success story.  Two-thirds of Americans are able to participate in curbside recycling services, and 9 out of 10 Americans have access to recycling programs overall, including drop-off centers.  More people recycle than vote, so it’s also a remarkable citizen-engagement achievement.

Recycling is not just something that is driven by state and local government mandates.  Recyclables are commodities that replace or help minimize the use of raw materials. The economics of recycling vs. disposal costs, raw materials acquisition, and increasing commitments to more sustainable materials management and business practices have helped spur unprecedented private investments in recyclables processing capacity and the use of recovered materials.

I also believe that recycling can be a gateway to other environmentally conscious behaviors, such as conserving energy at home and work, buying more green products, taking public transit, etc.

Green Philly Blog: So recycling in the ‘gateway’ drug of the green world. Interesting! Speaking of your gateway to Philly, you’ve covered quite a bit of territory between Maryland, Florida, and Philly. What are some key differences between the various jurisdictions?

Phil Bresee: All three states started building their recycling infrastructure and programs at about the same time, but the approaches can vary at the city and county level.  I think one of the things that stands out about Philly are the strong feelings of neighborhood pride that exist in all parts of the city. That’s not something you see as much of in other parts of the country, and I think that neighborhood pride has definitely helped our recycling efforts. However, I’m equally proud of what I’ve been able to help accomplish everywhere I’ve landed.

Green Philly Blog: What city do you think is the best ‘green’ role model for Philly in the USA?

Phil Bresee: We all try to learn from one another, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. All garbage is local. Cities and counties have to make policy and build programs based on their own logistical, demographic, fiscal and political realities.  That said, a few of the communities that I see as among the many leaders include Portland OR, Seattle WA, Austin Texas, Alameda County California, Howard County Maryland, and Mecklenburg County NC.

Green Philly Blog: What do you see as your main accomplishments so far? Challenges?

Phil Bresee: We’ve done pretty well at engaging our various stakeholders such as environmental groups, civics, and some business groups. Also, I feel pretty good about my working relationships with allied agencies in the city. Efforts to revitalize recycling in city buildings are getting underway, and we’ll soon be ready to implement some real improvements to our business recycling outreach.

One of the other things I’m trying to do is to raise the program’s profile on the local, regional, and national levels. There are some great stories to tell about Philadelphia’s recycling program, and I’ve been able to share them by speaking at conferences, community meetings, and by interviewing with trade journals. This helps get the attention of industry and advocacy groups that are looking for communities to partner with on initiatives.

And, while I certainly can’t take credit for it, there has also been a considerable amount of recycling success in the private sector and among institutions such as Penn, Drexel, business districts, and even the Philadelphia correctional system.  Materials such as construction and demolition debris are getting recycled at very high rates, and organics diversion (including food wastes) is picking up some serious momentum, all thanks to innovation and vision in the private and institutional sectors. 

One of our key challenges is in determining how to continue raising the bar. The waste stream is changing: For example, paper is becoming a smaller component of our waste stream due in large part to the way more and more people get their news now (digital vs. the daily newspaper). More materials will be packaged in plastic and even in cartons, as opposed to glass and metal. And of course, organics in the form of yard wastes and food wastes make up a huge fraction of the waste stream. Figuring out how to increase the recovery of these newer and emerging materials, while at the same time doing so in a fiscally sustainable way, is essential. Even materials that are already part of our recycling program, glass being the perfect example, need to be repurposed towards a higher and better use.

Green Philly Blog: What are your biggest goals for Philly?

Phil Bresee: I would love to be able to reframe recycling and waste reduction in Philadelphia to include more of an economic growth focus. Recycling is value-added, and creates ten times more jobs on a per-ton basis than regular disposal and could become a cornerstone of a renewed manufacturing policy in the U.S.

Green Philly Blog: What can Philadelphians and readers do to help?

Phil Bresee: Participate, be engaged, talk to neighbors, get the recyclables from all parts of the house including basements, bathrooms, garages, etc. Look for recycling opportunities when out and about, encourage your place of work to get with the program.

Try your best to incorporate environmental concerns into everyday decisions such as where to shop, what to buy, how to travel and who to vote for.

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Julie Hancher
Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake. View all posts by Julie Hancher

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