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Some Trash & Recycling is being combined in one collection. City has mixed messaging on why.
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Some Trash & Recycling is being combined in one collection. City has mixed messaging on why.

Philadelphia blames recent wet weather on combining our recycling into trash. But does the reasoning check out?

As readers have told us, some sanitation routes are combining trash and recycling into one truck.

Cue the flashbacks for many sustainability lovers. Philadelphia burned 50% of our recycling in late 2018-April 2019 due to a lapse in recycling contracts and a change in China’s recycling policy. However, the city obtained a new recycling contract in May 2019 to recycle 100% of the city’s blue bins again. Green Philly receives many questions if our recycling IS being recycled.

So why is the city combining trash and recycling now?

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Streets Department has temporarily told sanitation workers to combine materials along with forcing mandatory overtime shifts.

But Mayor Kenney said that it’s likely due to strained workers and conditions of summer weather and the pandemic. “It’s probably an effort to catch up with the volume that we’re dealing with… We’re in crisis mode with severe heat and severe weather and shortages of staff… We’re doing our best under terrible circumstances. ”

You can watch the daily press briefing where I asked about this here, around the 31:30 mark:

Or maybe it’s the rain. According to the city press office, they blamed recent wet weather events. “During the torrential rains, some recycling materials got wet and became contaminated, and therefore cannot be processed as recycling. So, in some instances, trash and recycling was collected in the same truck.”

However, the last time it rained was Friday, July 10th, related to Tropical Storm Fay. Philadelphia residents have spotted trash and recycling going into the same truck in various Philadelphia neighborhoods into last week and as recently as Monday, July 20th, in Queen Village.

Who makes the call if recycling is too contaminated?

Waste Management (The MRF) – not the city – would typically make the judgment call if a recycling truck is contaminated, according to Patty Barthel, public affairs at Waste Management. “Waste Management looks at the load and determines what percentage is considered contaminated. That sliding scale also controls the cost… The price may increase if the amount of contamination in the load is increased.”

Technically, soaked cardboard would be contaminated according to Waste Management. It would accumulate mildew and start rotting before they could ship it to a buyer.

If Waste Management receives a truck of recycling that is highly contaminated, there may be a contamination fee for that load. “When residents are recycling correctly, and the load is relatively clean, and doesn’t t have a bunch of food, plastic bags and styrofoam, the city would “pay a lesser rate” for that material,” according. to Barthel. But they still do pay.

The single-stream recycling system we use combines plastics, glass and paper into one bin. But by nature, plastics. and glass would not be affected by rain or wet weather events at the materials recovery facility (MRF).

So does the city ever make the call if recycling is too “contaminated” for Waste Management?

According to Chuck Raudenbush, Public Sector Services of Waste Management, this is a newer phenomenon. “This time last year (would they make the call if recycling is contaminated?) No,” said Raudenbush.

Would the city EVER make the call? As Barthel said, “It might have been a judgment call on behalf of the city on their volumes or what they’re seeing contamination-wise. It’s not something that we would have encouraged.”

Despite tossing our recycling into trash yet again, it’s not the sanitation workers‘ fault. They’re overworked and not receiving the proper PPE or equipment, and often victims of COVID-19.

WHYY’s Catalina Jaramillo recently reported that the weather is a scapegoat. According to the piece,

But Omar Salaam, a business agent with AFSCME District Council 33, which represents more than 1,100 Streets Department workers, said the pandemic and the heavy rains are just an excuse the city is using to explain the delays.

“Weather is not the problem, it’s poor management,” he said.

Regardless of the reason, it seems that our recycling system is still broken. But we’ve known that before the pandemic.

The question is: what are we going to do to fix it?

Cover photo: Queen Village trash and recycling in same truck. July 20, 2020


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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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