Philadelphia has long been plagued by one of the nation's worst residential recycling rates (approximately 6 percent). About two years ago, Blue Bell, Pa.-based RecycleBank approached city officials about launching a pilot program in which, in essence, residents would be paid to recycle. The project would be the vendor's first. In early 2005, the program was launched in the city's Chestnut Hill and West Oak Lane neighborhoods, each with 1,200 households.

RecycleBank provided residents in the neighborhoods with 32-gallon or 64-gallon wheeled recycling carts that feature radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Cascade Engineering designed the carts and also helped engineer the mechanical tipping arms, digital scales and onboard computers that are placed on the city's waste collection trucks.

After the residents received their bins, they activated online accounts that are managed by the vendor. Under the program, residents place all of their recyclables in the carts and roll them to the curbside. When the city's collection trucks arrive, workers wheel the carts to the vehicles, on which the bins are weighed, the RFID scanned and the recyclable weight for each household recorded on an onboard computer. The pounds recycled are then translated into “RecycleBank dollars” that can be used at more than 100 participating businesses, such as Starbucks, Home Depot, Patagonia, Whole Foods, and other local and national retailers and restaurants.

After collection, the recyclables are transported to a single-stream materials recovery facility (MRF) located in Philadelphia and owned by Blue Mountain Recycling. The facility uses an adjustable V-screen separator to sort paper, cardboard, glass, plastics and metals, which are then baled and sold to market.

Herb Northrup, one of the founders of Blue Mountain, says there were concerns that residuals would increase under an incentive-based, single-stream recycling program. However, he says, residuals have actually decreased when compared with before.

Prior to the introduction of the program, the high-income Chestnut Hill area had a monthly recycling participation rate of approximately 30 percent. The average weekly weight of recyclables per household was about 10 pounds. Now, the participation rate has increased to more than 90 percent and the average household weight to 35 pounds.

The improvement in the moderate-income West Oak Lane area has been comparable. The participation rate is more than 90 percent, and the average weekly weight of recyclables set out by residents has increased from 3 pounds to more than 20 pounds.

Because the program collects recyclable data on each household, Philadelphia officials and other stakeholders can analyze statistics in several ways: by individual household, by street or by entire neighborhood.

As recycling rates nationwide have stagnated or, in some cases, declined during the past decade, it is incumbent on cities and counties to find new ways to motivate residents to participate. The pilot program in Philadelphia demonstrates that when it comes to motivation, good old-fashioned money is hard to beat.
Scott Kaufman,
Research Director,
RecycleBank