Friday, March 6, 2015

Where are the green groups on the trash fee?

Back in March, Mayor Nutter proposed two controversial ideas for raising revenue: a tax on sugary drinks and a $300 fee for residential trash collection. Both proposals have generated a lot of response from the public. But one group of advocates has been noticeably silent.

Where are the green groups on the trash fee?

Mayor Michael Nutter shows off newly purchased solar powered trash cans<br />
Mayor Michael Nutter shows off newly purchased solar powered trash cans staff

Back in March, Mayor Nutter proposed two controversial ideas for raising revenue: a tax on sugary drinks and a $300 fee for residential trash collection. Both proposals have generated a lot of response from the public. But one group of advocates has been noticeably silent.

Green groups haven’t challenged Mayor Nutter on what one leading environmental activist says are obvious flaws in the design of his trash fee.

“[Nutter's trash fee] doesn't do anything to encourage recycling," said the advocate, who requested anonymity to protect working relationships. "We understand that the city is broke, but you've got this opportunity to [raise revenue] and do it in a way that has additional benefits.”

An alternative approach to charging for trash pickup, known as "Pay as You Throw," would have greater environmental benefits than Nutter's flat fee. Similar programs in other cities have boosted recycling rates, but the approach was considered and rejected by the administration.

So why hasn’t the environmental community mounted an organized campaign to support the idea?

"I think there is a little bit of nervousness in the environmental community about pushing him too hard," the advocate said. The attitude [of environmental groups] is that we're not going to win this one. So let's just leave it alone."

We asked several leaders of the local green movement to comment on Pay as You Throw. Maurice Sampson, who chairs the RecycleNOW! campaign, said that environmental organizations haven't commented because they haven't been asked for their opinion.

“We are not involved in the discussion because we have not been invited to be part of the discussion," he said. "So far, all the talks have been between the Mayor and City Council.”

Sampson says the Nutter Administration didn't engage the environmental community while developing the trash fee last year – even when it was considering Pay as You Throw.

“The [administration's] concept of pay as you throw was not something we came up with," he said. "The administration floated the idea last year and withdrew it. We heard about it when everyone else did.”

To be clear, Sampson supports some form of Pay as You Throw. He just doesn't think it should be the top priority for the green movement. Other environmental leaders we spoke to expressed a similar sentiment, pointing out that their agenda shouldn't be driven entirely by Mayor Nutter's budget process.

Their rationale makes a lot of sense. Still, we can't help but notice that other special interests -- especially opponents of the soda tax -- are not being shy about making their voices heard. It would be nice to have environmentalists be part of the debate on how to generate revenue. It's a valuable perspective.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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