Updated: Plastics recycling goes all the way to seven

Arist's conception of a cost-effective method for city to spread the news of recycling plastics #1-#7.

There's big news today out of the Mayor's Office of Sustainability - the city's curbside recycling program has at long last expanded its plastic pickup to include all plastics #1 through #7. Previously only #1 and #2 could be put in with your glass and paper for recycling.

This is a great step toward that "Greenest City in America" goal, and one I discussed with Mayor Nutter back in May in this brief audio interview. At that time the Mayor promised that he was working on trying to expand the types of plastics that can be recycled by consumers, and he agreed that we want to make the process as easy and habitual as possible.

To that end, the city could still do better, so I'm hoping this will be followed up quickly by an attention-getting public-education campaign. I only happened across this news on the Office of Sustainability's Facebook page, and still have questions that have gone unanswered all day by that office and/or the Streets Department. None of my fellow editors in the DN newsroom saw any press release about this. (If and when more info comes in from whichever department I will add as an update.)

Sure, with the city cutting firehouse hours because of its cut-to-the-bone budget I understand that there are not unlimited P.R. resources.  But Philadelphia needs to take seriously the task of getting the word out on this and getting average Philadelphians to grasp how easy recycling can be.

Personally, I still like that YouTube contest idea, or, say, a Flash game showing different branded packages, and the user has to click Yes or No within a short time, could be a fun way to get the sorting set in our minds. But there should certainly be multiple prongs to the strategy to reach different demographics of Philly residents. Facebook is one prong, obviously, and, well, Earth to Philly is another. Maybe the trash trucks that have been converted and repainted could blare the message to everybody in the neighborhood?

Feel free to add your own suggestions on how to get the message out - it may, after all, be up to us to establish this whole strategy - and don't forget to put your #1 - #7 plastics out!

UPDATE: A few minutes after posting, I heard from Alex Dews and Sarah Wu from the Office of Sustainability, who confirmed that though there had been no press release yet touting this change, "there is going to be a press event later in the month." They referred me over to Streets for more detailed info, and I will share what I learn there once I learn it.

UPDATE 8/4: Just had a good chat with Ben Ditzler from RecycleNow, who was able to sort out a lot of these issues. Unfortunately, the sorted-out reality is even more complex than the broad-stroke declaration ("All Plastics #1-#7) was.

First, the change comes, he says, from a newly-bid contract with Waste Management, Inc., which pays the City of Philadelphia $50 per ton of recycling. When I asked if we could be sure all these new plastics were really getting recycled rather than dumped in a landfill, he said "we can't be 100% sure, but it wouldn't make sense for Waste Management to pay for all these and then have to pay someone else to throw them away."

Still, there are exceptions even within the guideline that "if you see a #1 (-#7) on it, it's recyclable." Most notably, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), which is #3, is not really recyclable at all! "Pottstown has a program that takes PVC," Ditzler says, "and makes it into archery bales," but that's a pretty crude form of "downcycling" rather than recycling. Still, the city wants you to go ahead and put PVC in with your recycling, if only to avoid phrasing it as "1 and 2 and 4 through 7, but not 3."

Also not recyclable: Styrofoam, which is a form of polystyrene (#6). If you went here looking to see what's included in these categories you would find that packaging stamped #6 can include "Egg cartons; packing peanuts; disposable cups, plates, trays and cutlery," yet if you check the RecycleNow guide, the first two items on the "NO" list are "Styrofoam (includes egg cartons, clamshell containers, plates, cups and meat trays)" and "Packing peanuts." So that's another one it looks like the city is glossing over in the hopes of keeping it simple.

As for the plates, cups and so forth, Ditzler noted that some varieties of "compostable dinnerware," which is becoming very trendy at green events, may be stamped with #7, but all compostable items are unrecyclable. "In fact they junk up the recycling process pretty bad," he notes. On the plus side, if you can call it that, that Streets department page linked above says "NO" for aluminum foil and hardcover books, which Ditzler assures me are actually recyclable in the eyes of Waste Management.

So where does that leave us? Is there a simple Yes-or-No standard average Philly residents can apply when attempting to recycle the right thing? Ditzler agrees that more work needs to be done there and laments that we don't have the kind of public education campaigns they do in West Coast cities, where recycling info is presented entirely visually (due to large immigrant populations) and people need not memorize verbal categories but can learn to simply associate individual consumer items as Yes or No. (Previously mentioned here.) But even without these explicit cues, he says, you'll usually be OK if you have some plastic that looks a good candidate and does not fall into one of three "No-no" categories: No styrofoam; No plastic bags/films (e.g. plastic wrap) and no compostable plastic.

Earth to Philly will continue our efforts to get recyclables and non-recyclables completely sorted out, as will, no doubt, the recycling company itself.

UPDATE 8/5: Had a nice long conversation with the Streets department on this and learned more of the nitty-gritty from their perspective. I will put that report up as a separate post tomorrow.