Recycling is more than a drop in the bucket.

Just ask Blair Alegant, Philadelphia father of two, Water Department engineer, and avid recycler, who a few weeks ago was faced with disposing of eight pizza boxes from his daughter Natalie's 10th birthday party.

In his Northeast neighborhood, cardboard can be tossed in the recycling bin along with glass, metal and paper.

But what about cardboard stained with pizza grease and the occasional fleck of mozzarella? Alegant wasn't sure, and he didn't know where to call to find out. So, reluctantly, he folded the pizza boxes into the trash.

Other times, after a quick lunch in Center City, Alegant says, he'd love to pitch his drink bottle into a recycling bin - if only he could find one.

"It drives me nuts," he says. "We're the fifth-largest city in the country, and I can't recycle a Snapple bottle after lunch. It should be easier."

It should be, but it's not.

Nationwide, the container-recycling rate is 33 percent, though it's much higher in the 11 states that require a nickel or dime deposit on bottles and aluminum beverage cans. But while curbside recycling programs continue to grow, there are few recycling bins in parks, on corners, or on buses and trains - the places where Americans eat and drink on the go.

Why is the recycling rate so bad? "Because there aren't financial incentives to bring the stuff back," says Jenny Gitlitz, research director for the Container Recycling Institute in Washington, D.C.

People who don't recycle at home cite a lack of storage space, the hassle of rinsing jars and cans, and confusion about recycling-pickup times, says Thomas Kinnaman, an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University, who has studied recycling programs nationwide.

Though incentive programs (the carrot approach) make better policy than enforcement and fines (the stick approach, which can prompt illegal dumping), Kinnaman says his research shows the strongest incentive to recycle is the belief that everyone else is doing it.

"When something becomes a social norm, you become an outcast if you're not doing it," he says. "If your neighbors see a lot of bottles in your garbage, you feel the same way as if you let your lawn get too high. It's a taboo."

In 1987, Philadelphia led the environmental charge - it was the first major city to mandate recycling. But the residential recycling rate here has stalled at 6 percent for the last decade.

The city has a patchwork of strategies: Depending on where you live, collection is biweekly or weekly; single-stream (throw it all together) or dual-stream (separate that paper, please); cardboard and some plastics are taken at the curb, or not.

Elsewhere in the region, rules can differ from county to county - even from town to town.

Amid the confusion, the Alegants seem like a beacon of clarity and purpose. In a city of recycling slackers, they overachieve.

"Recycling makes sense," says Alegant, 41. That's why his wife, Kim Ruch-Alegant, gives each of their daughters one water bottle at the start of the week and refills them nightly instead of buying new ones.

It's why the family used to take plastic containers to Blair's mother's house in Langhorne before Philadelphia launched curbside collection of plastics and cardboard for 123,000 Northeast households last summer.

Their children, Natalie and 6-year-old Kassandra, are already disciples. "When me and Kassandra clean up," Natalie says, "if we pick up papers and one of us goes to throw them away, Mommy says, 'You need to recycle that.' "

The Alegants have even converted a few neighbors - a family that used its recycling bucket to store the pool cover, and the guy who threw out 40 glass soft-drink bottles a week.

"It makes me mad," says Ruch-Alegant, 36, a personal-injury and workers' comp attorney. "How hard is it to keep your cans and put them out at the curb?"

Apparently, harder than you'd imagine.

"Putting out trash is something people do without thinking," says Maurice Sampson, the city's first recycling coordinator, back in the mid-'80s. "We want to change how they do that."

Sampson has become a champion of incentive-based initiatives - rewarding residents with store coupons based on how much they recycle.

RecycleBank, a program that does exactly that, has seen participation rates bump from 35 percent in Chestnut Hill and 7 percent in West Oak Lane to 90 percent in both neighborhoods since pilot efforts began there in 2005. So Sampson and others in the Recycle NOW campaign he chairs want to see RecycleBank go citywide.

Meenal Raval of Mount Airy, who serves on Recycle NOW's steering committee, did more than just think about her trash. For seven months, she weighed it, and her recyclables and her compost, by stepping on a bathroom scale empty-handed, then with a bag of vegetable scraps, glass jars or aluminum cans. She made a spreadsheet.

The outcome: 84 percent of what Raval and her husband discarded went into the recycling bin or the compost heap; only 16 percent went in the trash.

Paying such rapt attention to her refuse prompted a change in habits. Raval, 44, stopped drinking juice in aseptic boxes because they're too hard to recycle. She began making her own yogurt instead of buying it in No. 5 plastic cups the city won't take in curbside recycling.

She also returns batteries and burned-out compact fluorescent bulbs to Ikea, plastic bags to Whole Foods, and her own and friends' dead electronics (cell-phone batteries and computer monitors) to hazardous-materials collection sites.

"I do it because it's the right thing to do," says Raval. "I'd been reading about Zero Waste. It's like world peace. You aim for that, and if you get close, that's good."

Over in Narberth, recycling is a family tradition for Dan Wolk, a physician, and Cathi Tillman, a clinical social worker.

Wolk, 51, was moved by reading Rachel Carson's landmark book, Silent Spring, at age 12. Tillman, 52, started Lower Merion High School's first environmental club in the early 1970s. Their older daughter, Liana, was eco-rep for her dorm at Bowdoin College; Coryn, 17, chides classmates at Lower Merion when they toss soda bottles into the trash.

The family saves glass, cans, paper, plastic beverage containers and cardboard for the borough's biweekly collection. And twice a year, Wolk crams their Camry station wagon with other recyclables - plastic packaging, ricotta-cheese containers, scrap metal, fabric, styrofoam - and drives it to Recycling Services Inc. in Pottstown, a community program that accepts 45 different materials (including packing peanuts, eyeglasses, and wire coat hangers).

"This may sound a little obsessive-compulsive," says Wolk, "but when Coryn wears out a three-ring binder, I pull off the plastic, recycle the cardboard, and put the rings into the scrap-metal bin for Pottstown."

"We're just one family. But you have to figure out how to minimize your impact on the planet."

On a recent afternoon, Philadelphia recycling truck No. 075068 backed into the lot at Blue Mountain Recycling in Grays Ferry, which sorts and sells recyclables from the city and surrounding suburbs.

State-of-the-art machines use magnets, fans, gravity and centrifugal force to sort the hodgepodge, weeding paper from cardboard, plastic from glass.

Then, like materials are wire-bound into 2,000-pound bales: Blair Alegant's Snapple bottle. Meenal Raval's egg carton. Dan Wolk's tomato can.

Blue Mountain sorts 10,000 tons of material a month - the equivalent in weight of 1,500 male African elephants. But the transfer station on Columbus Boulevard is able to process 4,000 tons of trash a day.

Bob Anderson, Blue Mountain's business-development manager, watches his machines from a second-floor window.

"How much better can we do in recycling as a region?" he asks. "We have a long way to go."