Plastics recycling: The word on the Streets

As promised yesterday, here's our chat with Scott McGrath of the Streets Department, getting into the nitty-gritty of Philly's new recycling plan that takes all plastic #1 through #7.

E2P: Glass, metal and cardboard are already recylclable. So does this change mean that pretty much anything people buy in Philadelphia grocery stores is going to be recyclable? Can it really be put that simply?

McGrath: Well, there are exceptions, but almost all of it can, and that's part of the point here [in going to #7]. This enables us to take almost all of the consumer packaging products that you'll find on store shelves, so people can more easily go ahead and add those items they see in their homes.

E2P: I understand the change was due to Waste Management taking over the contract and that they pay the city $50 a ton for the recycling people put out.

McGrath: That's right. One of the biggest advantages to this change is that we get more of the #1 and #2 plastics this way. If people know they don't have to figure out which kind of plastic container it is they're more likely to recycle any and all plastics. By weight, these others (#3 - #7) are small, something like 1% of the total waste stream. But it's the kind of stuff people see when they go shopping. So if they know they can put it in, we're gonna get that and get more of the ones and twos, which are more profitable to turn around.

E2P: But does making this blanket declaration about plastics mean that you'll also get more of the wrong kind?

McGrath: There's always going to be a small percentage of junk that has to be weeded out, and obviously we want to provide Waste Management with the highest-quality stream that we can. Consistently I've been told that the materials we pick up from city residents are 'cleaner' - a higher percentage of the stuff we actually want - than those we get in the suburbs. And I will point out that South Philly is currently the leader within the city. They're averaging 26% to 28% of the waste stream. They've passed Chestnut Hill, which is at 22% - 24%. Other neighborhoods are getting their numbers up, too.

E2P: I had heard that #3, PVC, is essentially unrecyclable, so even if people put that in with their recycling, it's just going to go to a landfill or something.

McGrath: No, it's not going to a landfill, it will be recycled. It's just harder to market. They will recycle the PVC - it can be made into other things. What we ask, though, is no PVC pipe. That's the wrong kind of PVC to be able to do anything with.

E2P: Well, I can't speak for everybody, but when I hear "PVC" that's exactly what I visualize - the pipe. What's an example of non-pipe PVC?

McGrath: Paint buckets, for instance, that's the rigid form of PVC. That's what we'd prefer to get. Generally what we want are plastic containers.

E2P: Ben Ditzler of RecycleNow said that contrary to the list on your Web page, aluminum foil and hardback books now are indeed recyclable.

McGrath: Aluminum foil is a different kind of aluminum than that in aluminum cans, so it can't be sorted by the regular non-ferrous sorting system. And you don't get enough of it to create a separate stream. With hardback books it's not the quality of the cardboard but the extra glue and materials in the binding that makes it a problem. I will check on that, though. [After checking.] No, Ben Ditzler is right, Waste Management has found a way to recycle the aluminum foil and hardbacks, so we'll be updating that list. One thing, though - aluminum foil needs to be clean. It can't have any food on it.

E2P: This announcement seems to have kind of snuck up on people. What exactly is your strategy in letting everybody know about this?

McGrath: We're launching a campaign, or campaigns, for this later in the months, and we're working out those detaiuls now. We do have some information at, and in the future months we will be refining our messaging and getting the word out in different ways. We do have a water-bill stuffer [a printed insert that people receive along with their water bill] that's gone out.

E2P: I've been advocating for a while here to do something like a YouTube contest where you encourage the public to create the best video PSA that would encourage recycling and get across what should and shouldn't be put in there, in a memorable way. Do have any plans of that nature or something else you can tell us about now?

McGrath: Yeah, that's some of the types of things that we are considering right now. We've done some things kind of like that in the Un-Litter Us campaign. We're taking advantage of the Web, of social media assets. We're on Facebook and so forth, letting people know about this in a variety of ways.

E2P: Is there going to be a press conference?

McGrath: Right now we have an event scheduled for August 31st in the Mayor's Reception Room. But we're still nailing down details and working out the different ways we're going to promote this and educate the public.

E2P: Anything else you want to be sure to let the reading public know at this point?

McGrath: Remember to register for Recycling Rewards, and stay tuned for our next campaign!

More Philly recycling details/info here, here and here.