The “smartest, coolest” eco-plan

Mark Alan Hughes was proud, clearly. At least he had good news.

City finance director Rob Dubow had just summarized  the bad news about the looming $1 billion budget shortfall.  Deputy mayor Rina Cutler took on the unpopular subject of a $5 per household trash fee. 

Can sustainability survive in this kind of environment?

You bet, said Hughes last night at the latest urban sustainability forum at the Academy of Natural Sciences.  The mayor’s office of sustainability, which Hughes directs, has promised to have a sustainability “framework” by Earth Day, and he said things were on track.

One of the things they’re looking at is efficiencies that have “immediate and sustainable budget implications.” Like reducing energy use in all city buildings 30 percent by 2015, with millions of dollars in outright savings. It would be $36 million less than projected expenditures. But, more vividly, $15 million less than the city spends now.

Hughes crowed that the office is “on schedule to launch the smartest, coolest framework ever designed by an American city.” He said it was even better than the New York plan — PlaNYC — which he’s praised in the past. Hughes joked that he was just setting the Big Apple up to be a better target.

It was an occasionally rollicking evening, down to a surprise guest, Mayor Nutter himself, who snuck in through a back door.

As long as they were talking trash, he came clean about a “big battle in my own household.” Seems that in an effort to make recycling easier, the mayor bought a second trash can for the kitchen. Alas, “it has thrown off the complete feng shui of our kitchen area,” he lamented, adding as the crowd laughed, “I’m going to ask for your thoughts and prayers.”

More seriously, he vowed that no matter what happens with the trash — less frequent pick-ups is one proposal — he’s going to keep weekly single-stream recycling pick-up.

Cutler, meanwhile, took on the $5 weekly trash fee. To keep the system simple (and, presumably, cheaper), they’d have to charge every household, regardless of income level or the amount of trash they put out.  She lamented that the plan, if approved, “is going to be a heavy lift in oh so many ways.”

And how.

Here was one comment from Ben Ditzler of RecycleNOW West Philly: “We in the recycling advocacy community would wholeheartedly support a pay-as-you-throw program, but this is not it. It is, quite simply, a regressive tax that does not encourage a beneficial behavior. Under the city's proposed system, if you put out the maximum amount of trash, you are charged $5/week. If you put out one bag of trash or even a bag of trash once a month (as I do - I recycle and compost), you are charged $5/week. I fail to see how this charge will advance recycling in Philadelphia.”

Stay tuned.

Next up for the Academy’s great Town Square forums: “Extending the Schuylkill River Trail,” 6:30 p.m. Feb. 26.