With a City Council hearing on Philadelphia's abysmal recycling rate a week away, the Streets Department today is announcing a major expansion that will allow residents in the West and Southwest to recycle plastics and cardboard - and to toss everything into one bin.

So-called single-stream collection began last summer in the Northeast. The department says the program has been so successful - the recycling rate increased about 30 percent - that on March 5, it will expand to cover nearly half the city's 550,000 households.

"We're excited. We're continuing to roll out the program to other areas of the city," Deputy Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams said in an interview yesterday. He projected that the changes would go citywide within three years.

Critics cheered. And griped.

The Northeast's improvement sounded impressive, they noted, because the recycling rate there was just 8 percent to begin with. Now it's 10.5 percent. (Citywide, it is about 7 percent.)

According to some analysts, 33 percent of each household's waste is recyclable.

For Maurice Sampson 2d, chair of Recycle Now Philadelphia, an advocacy group, the move is too little, too late: "Why are we not getting single-stream everywhere? Why not next week?"

Sampson said he was looking forward to getting some answers at the Council hearing next Thursday. "Too much just doesn't make sense to me."

Evan Belser, a recycling advocate for Clean Water Action, said he was "pleased the Streets Department is recognizing the public demand for better recycling," but added that "this program still falls drastically short of what we need."

He and others want weekly pickup in the West, Southwest and Northeast, where collections are every other week.

They also favor incentives to encourage recycling. A pilot program in Chestnut Hill and West Oak Lane run by RecycleBank, for example, provides coupons.

Belser said it was "unfortunate" the department decided to expand without consulting its Recycling Advisory Committee, of which he is a member.

"A lot of professionals and very interested, passionate recyclers sit on that committee," he said. "They're not being seen as a resource, and frankly, the recycling program needs all the resources it can get."

Differences among programs can make city-to-city comparisons misleading. But according to a 2006 survey in Waste News, an industry publication, Philadelphia ranked seventh among the eight biggest cities. Los Angeles was first, at 45 percent.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who called for the hearing, said the Streets Department had a leadership void for a while. But with Joan Hicken's appointment last March as recycling coordinator, she said, "my expectation is that there will be substantial movement and progress."

At the hearing, a consortium - Recycle NOW, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, Clean Air Council, and Clean Water Action - is seeking responses to four pages of questions.

One of them notes that a city ordinance requires a recycling rate of 35 percent to 40 percent, an achievement that the city controller concluded in a 2005 report could save as much as $21.4 million a year.

Williams, the deputy commissioner, said the Streets Department's presentation at Thursday's hearing would answer many questions.

The biggest challenge now, he said, is a lack of compactor trucks. Up to 20 percent of the aging fleet of compactors is sidelined for repair, he said. The consortium's submission, by contrast, quoted the city's Office of Fleet Management as reporting that the Streets Department has 268 compactors, 100 of them idle at any given time.

Williams also said the department planned to continue its much-criticized enforcement program, issuing tickets and levying fines for improper recycling, but added: "Our goal is to educate residents first."

As in the Northeast, the department plans to deploy street teams to West and Southwest Philadelphia to knock on doors and hand out materials.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com