On the blustery November Wednesday following homecoming weekend at Penn, the campus sidewalks overflowed with piles, cans, and bags of garbage. Wednesday is collection day for the neighborhood surrounding Penn’s campus, so for those without a landlord or private pick–up service at their residence, hump day is waste day. In kicking their garbage to the curb, those living just west of Penn’s campus have to confront their week’s worth of waste as they set it outside to be whisked away later that day. And after homecoming parties and pre–games and brunches, there’s waste galore. 

In Philadelphia, garbage collection days are also recycling collection days. So within every small circle of plastic black cans on these sidewalks are spots of blue ones, with the white recycling triangle emblazoned on their sides. College parties should yield all kinds of recyclable waste. Wine bottles, salsa jars, beer cans—all of these items can be recycled according to Philadelphia’s single–stream policy

But there’s a catch. 

While most containers can be recycled, they need to be thoroughly rinsed of any residue or food contamination, according to Philadelphia rules. Worse yet, a lot of items that people tend to think of as being recyclable—plastic bags, paper towels, styrofoam takeout containers—actually can’t be recycled at the local plants Philadelphia uses to process waste. And if a recycling bin contains even one item that can’t be recycled, odds are that none of it will be recycled.

So how well do Penn students living off–campus and their West Philadelphia neighbors know the drill when it comes to recycling? Based on several photos taken of recycling bins set out for collection last Wednesday, not well at all. 

The worst offense among photos taken along Spruce Street, Pine Street, Locust Street, Baltimore Avenue, and 41st Street was plastic bags. In nearly every blue bin were several plastic bags stuffed to the brim with what residents perceived to be recyclable waste. But recyclable or not, by placing this waste in so many plastic bags, all contents of the bin are immediately rendered non–recyclable. Even a perfectly rinsed–out wine bottle doesn’t stand a chance against the wrath of a plastic bag.

Poor recycling habits aren’t uncommon across the United States. An April survey from Covanta, a global waste management and incineration company, found that 62% of respondents feel that their lack of knowledge about recycling might be leading them to recycle incorrectly. Believe it or not, common items that might seem recyclable, like greasy pizza boxes, plastic utensils, or Red Solo cups, can’t be processed in Philadelphia. 

These items, and others like them, are largely non–recyclable either because Philadelphia’s current infrastructure can’t handle the materials they’re made out of or because they have non–recyclable contaminants. Plastic bags, in particular, have the potential to cause damage to the machinery in recycling plants, opening the door to increased costs in maintenance and equipment damage. 

But how does this all fit in to Philadelphia’s waste processing system, and what’s the real impact of improper sorting when it comes to recycling?

According to Kyle Lewis, the recycling program director for the Philadelphia Streets Department, “one bad bin can spoil a whole truckload of material.” For example, Lewis says that wet paper or cardboard can’t be recycled by Philadelphia systems. If a bin mistakenly contains liquid waste, when the contents of that bin go into a truck’s trash compactor with the contents of others, they have the potential to contaminate other pieces of perfectly good recyclable materials. 

The fate of contaminated recyclables is uncertain. Until last spring, Covanta took about half of the city’s recycling and burned it in waste–to–energy incinerators. Now, under the city’s new contract with Waste Management, Lewis says that contaminated recyclables are still picked up by recycling trucks. However, once brought to the Waste Management Material Recovery Facility (MRF), different sorting methods might send that contaminated recycling to a landfill, incinerator, or other form of non–recyclable waste disposal. 

These uncertainties around the destination of recycled waste are reflective of a broader recycling crisis in the United States. In January 2018, China, who was one of the world’s biggest processors of recycling, enacted the National Sword Policy—a crackdown on the kinds of materials and contaminated waste the country would accept. 

Before this new policy went into action, China took in about 70% of the world’s plastic waste, amounting to seven million tons per year. And simply put, when the National Sword Policy went into effect, the United States didn’t have the infrastructure to process its own recycling at anywhere near the same level. 

James Regan, the Media Relations Director for Covanta, says this is in part what led to Philadelphia’s choice to incinerate some of its recycling at local Covanta incinerators. “China’s crackdown underscored the lack of recycling infrastructure that we have in the United States, and showed that we relied too long on China to deal with this waste.”

Lewis agrees, but emphasizes that the city never considered incinerating recyclables as a permanent solution to the crisis. “When China’s policy came out, we were in the middle of winding down a contract,” she says. “And when that contract ended, the vendor increased our recycling rate by 300%.” In the interim of negotiating a better and more affordable contract, Lewis says the city made the hard decision to continue sending well–sorted recycling to MRFs, but to also start sending contaminated materials to Covanta’s incinerators.

Now, through the city’s new contract with Waste Management, Lewis says all of Philadelphia’s recycling will be sent to local Waste Management MRFs for sorting and processing at a cost of about $90 to $100 per ton, with incentives built in for reduced contamination. Even though the MRFs contain magnets, screens, and optical scanners to help sort the single–stream recycling, Lewis says it’s still better for the city if people properly sort their own recycling at home before pick-up.

“I like to draw a parallel to the air we breathe,” says Lewis. When residents correctly sort their own recycling, they reduce the chance that their waste will be sent to landfills or waste–to–energy incinerators, which in turn reduces the air pollutants that result from these processing methods. “We want to continue to breathe clean air, and the air that we breathe is not a matter of mine or yours,” she says. “It’s ours. Anybody who throws something away is somebody who can recycle—who needs to recycle.”

But for students living in apartment buildings, or through leases with landlords in off–campus housing, there’s not always a need to think closely about their relationships with garbage. Tim Stewart, a leasing agent and specialist for Hamilton Court Apartments, says that residents simply need to take out their trash to the building’s dumpsters. Though the apartment building has both regular garbage and recycling dumpsters, Stewart acknowledges that the choice to recycle is really up to residents. 

Bill Grove, the Senior Operations Manager for University City Housing, says he thinks the office’s residents are relatively good about maintaining proper recycling habits. He says that their buildings with more than six units are required to have private haulers like Waste Management. “The private haulers let you know if your recycling is fouled by household waste, and we haven’t really heard that from them,” he notes. 

However, Lucy Corlett (C ‘20) thinks that there’s still a general apathy about recycling and waste pathways among Penn students. After working all summer on a project that examined what she calls "Philadelphia’s waste crisis," she sees a lot of ways people could improve their waste–related habits. In her research, Lucy said she spoke to adults who’ve lived in Philadelphia for a long time. “And they’re all perfect recyclers,” she comments. “They see it as a favor they’re doing for a city that they love and care about and identify with.” 

Sometimes, she thinks there isn’t this same identification with Philadelphia in students coming to college from all over the world. “Even my roommates, who are really kind, woke people, do not recycle properly and do not attempt to,” Lucy remarks. 

Though the Philadelphia city website keeps an updated list of recycling rules, and city officials have plans to roll out more public education programs on recycling as part of the new Waste Management contract, there’s a question of whether or not these efforts should be focused elsewhere. Because recycling slowly degrades the quality of the materials it processes, the system serves more as a delay to incineration or landfill disposal, rather than a final solution for most products. 

The classic “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra often puts the most emphasis on the last of the three actions, and recycling is so often seen as the gateway to other sustainable habits, that few stop to ask the question of how sustainable recycling is itself.

“The one thing that the recycling crisis has really shown is that reuse and reduction are really the ignored portion of the waste hierarchy,” Regan says. He sees the best solution to current disparities in recycling knowledge to be reducing the quantity of waste, as opposed to turnovers of infrastructure to process mistakes in waste–sorting.

Lucy also thinks that people who are concerned with issues in the recycling pathway should take a look at their own waste production first. Upset last year by the news that some of Philadelphia’s recycling was being sent to incinerators, she decided to take steps wherever she could in reducing her garbage. She wants people to realize that “it’s not better to buy an iced coffee in a glass bottle than it is to get hot coffee in a wax paper cup, because both of those things end up in the waste pathway.”

While waste–to–energy incineration is undoubtedly a better option for disposing of contaminated recyclables than landfills or ocean–dumping is, Lucy knows that the thought of burning waste and producing pollutants is still extremely disturbing. She encourages people to read up consistently on updates to the recycling rules of Philadelphia and to do their best to discourage frivolous waste disposal among friends and family.

But overall, Lucy, Regan, and Lewis all acknowledge that no progress can be made without group effort. Lucy especially stresses a resistance to packaged materials, and a constant awareness of opportunities to eliminate waste production in daily life. “We need to unlearn our resistance to reuse and our tendencies to produce trash,” she says. “There has to be a cultural revolution around use and waste.”