Recycling in Erie: Where does our trash go?

Categories:  News & Politics    Features
Wednesday, June 8th, 2011 at 12:00 AM
Recycling in Erie: Where does our trash go? by Abby Badach

Somewhere in a factory far, far away – Lexington, Ky., perhaps – a mechanical nozzle squirts a thick ribbon of creamy Jif peanut butter into a plastic jar.

It travels down the conveyer belt, then down to an assembly line, where it gets packed into boxes with its brother and sister peanut butter jars. They kibitz among themselves in the box as big, northbound semi trucks ship them across the country, eventually rumbling up Peach Street into your favorite grocery store.

Then into your shopping cart.

And, eventually, down into your belly.

Eight PB&Js and one peanut butter pie later, that plastic jar ends up in your sink, where it sits there for approximately 48 hours before you get around to rinsing it out.

You throw it into the recycling bin. (And you better throw it in the freakin’ recycling bin – come on, now.)

But then what?

If you leave one peanut buttery molecule stuck to the side of the jar, does your whole bag of recycling become ruined? Does that jar stay in Erie, or is it shipped away? And what does that jar turn into once it’s recycled?

Erie Reader has the answers.

Single-Stream vs. Separated

Before the City of Erie switched to a single-stream recycling program, Sustainability Coordinator Sarah Galloway and her colleagues would receive – literally – hundreds of phone calls per week with one simple question: “Is it blue bag week or clear bag week?”

They even had to change each of their voicemails every week to clear up the constant stream of questions: “You’ve reached the City of Erie’s public works department. It’s blue bag week…”

The city, Galloway explained, used to require residents to separate their recyclables by materials in separate containers. Paper would be picked up during one week in clear bags, while glass, aluminum, and plastic would be picked up the next week in blue bags.

But beginning Jan. 1, 2008, Erie switched to a single-stream recycling program, which means all recyclables can be thrown into the same container – and they’re all picked up in one big load every week. Galloway said participation has skyrocketed since then.

“The easier the program is, the more people will recycle,” Galloway said. “If you have a really complicated program, people are just going to get frustrated and throw everything in the garbage.”

Erie city resident Nicole Dohoda said she does make it a point to recycle, and the convenience of being able to place everything in one bin makes it easier for her to take advantage of the service.

“It’s convenient – but more than that, I like the thought that convenience actually might be an incentive for others to recycle more,” she said.

But convenience isn’t the only factor involved – it’s also a question of cost.

What happens after I pitch in?

Pre-sorted materials, sold separately to recycling plants, are – in theory – the most lucrative option for municipalities, Galloway said. For example, stacks of paper are more valuable by themselves than mixed in with glass, aluminum, and plastic. That’s why Erie used to require residents to separate their recyclables in the first place; the city could earn more money that way.

Though the city gets money for selling recyclables to recycling plants, the budget still must cover the cost of wages for workers as well as transportation to and from the plant. While the City of Erie picks up its own garbage and sends it to the landfill, Waste Management is contracted out to pick up the recyclables. Erie’s recyclables are transported and sold to a recycling plant in Cleveland, Galloway said.

But due to the rising cost of oil, plastic bottles are now more valuable than ever – either sold separately, or mixed in via single-stream programs. Since more people participate in the single-stream program because it’s easier, that makes the current recycling program more cost-effective, too.

Disposal of the pre-sorted recyclables cost the city $17 per ton, before the new system went into effect in January 2008. Now, under the current single-stream program, the city pays $3 per ton of recyclables. In comparison, it costs the city $48 per ton to collect and dispose of one ton of garbage. According to the Department of Natural Resources, each American produces – on average – 4.7 pounds of solid waste per day.

“It’s a huge savings to the city,” Galloway said. “Hopefully, as recyclables get more and more valuable, we’ll be able to pay nothing – or, maybe, even one day make a profit, ideally.”

Recycling myths explained

One popular recycling myth is that one contaminated bottle, can, or container ruins an entire bag of cleanly rinsed recyclables. (Have you ever tried to rinse out every drop of dressing from a Hidden Valley Ranch bottle? It’s truly a learned skill.)

Rinsing food waste from containers keeps the smell down for homeowners and refuse workers, and eases the workload of the recycling center, which has the final task of sorting through contributed recyclables. So does one soiled container – or one misplaced Styrofoam cup – really render a whole bag unusable?

No, Galloway explained.

“We only pay $3 [per ton] because we’re sending them mostly clean recyclables,” she said. “So if we start sending Waste Management recyclables that have 50 percent of garbage in it, they’re not going to want to give us that good of a price.”

If a rogue un-recyclable item makes it to the conveyer belt at the recycling plant, the workers there will remove it from the process. The same goes for a container that’s dripping with too much food waste. Galloway clarified that one accidental mis-throw will not ruin a whole bag of recyclables. In private homes, she said, this isn’t really a problem, since people living there have direct control over what they throw in the garbage and what they throw in the recycling bin.

In the parks, though, Galloway said it’s a different story. Due to laziness – or a lack of education – people sometimes throw garbage in the recycling bins. If that ratio reaches more than 50 percent, she said the refuse workers are instructed to throw the whole bag out – even if it’s half-full of fully useable recyclable materials. Digging through the bags takes too much time, and it’s also a health hazard, she explained.

“We just keep trying to educate the public that they’ll continuously improve their practices, and even in the parks, we can recycle,” Galloway said.

She noted that if people throw garbage in the recycling bins in the parks, and one person witnesses the refuse staff throwing the contaminated bags into the garbage, that perpetuates the stereotype that recycling doesn’t really matter – when, in fact, it’s essential.

“If they walk by the park one time and see the garbage guys throwing the recycling in the garbage truck, they’ll think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter – they’re just going to throw it in the garbage, anyway,’ not knowing that the reason they’re throwing it in the garbage is because of what they [the people] are doing,” she said.

For more information on what can and can’t be recycled within the city limits, visit, click on the “Departments” tab and select “Public Works.”

Where plastic bottles – and other stuff – ends up

For City of Erie residents, the garbage, recycling and compost trucks all come on the same night, once per week. Materials are picked up from the curbside, transferred into a recycling truck (not cheap – Galloway said they cost $200,000 to $250,000 apiece) and then to a transfer plant on 16th and Raspberry streets. From the transfer plant, the recycling is sent for further processing in Cleveland, while the garbage is sent to the Lakeview landfill in Erie. The landfill, operated by Waste Management, is located on Robison Road.

Recycled plastic – like the kind found in milk jugs, classified as HDPE –  is eventually turned into trash cans, flower pots, and plastic pipe, reports the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The plastic found in soda bottles, classified as PETE, could end up as carpet backing, sleeping bag insulation, containers for non-food items, tool handles, auto parts, and even clothing.

Aluminum cans typically produce new aluminum cans, the DEP says, while paper products – depending on the type – can end up as other writing paper, tissues or paper towels, new newsprint, insulation, or animal bedding.

Glass containers are recycled into new clear or colored glass products, from beverage bottles and food jars to insulation, reports the DEP. Making products from recycled glass requires less energy than starting a glass product from scratch.

Around the township

Like all public services, Erie County residents in surrounding municipalities have different programs than what’s offered in the city limits. Trash pickup is on different nights, the recycling truck could come around on a separate day than the trash truck and leaf or lawn waste pickup may only be eligible for pickup for a limited time.

Millcreek, for example, offers an optional “per bag” system – also called “pay-as-you-throw” – for residents who do not generate enough trash for a weekly pickup, said Christine Walter, recycling/solid waste coordinator for Millcreek Township. Those who are interested can go to the Millcreek recycling office to pick up a package of five 32-gallon trash bags for $25. Walter noted that the cost of the trash bags to the residents is the cost that the township pays Waste Management – there is no charge or fee placed upon the resident.

To save money, Galloway explained, the person wouldn’t put the trash bag out until it was completely full.

Once they pick up their bags from the recycling office and confirm their participation with Waste Management, per-bag participants are removed from the quarterly billing cycle for trash pickup (which costs $51.27 in Millcreek Township, Walter said). They are, however, still eligible to participate in weekly recycling programs and the six weeks of leaf/yard waste pickup at no extra charge.

“Single residents or those who do not eat at home do not generate enough trash to warrant a trash pickup every week,” Walter said. “The per-bag service is a great option to have in the contract… they are not paying for a service they cannot fully utilize.” 

When that person does have trash to set out, he or she sets it out in the special bag on the curb on garbage night and Waste Management will pick it up – however, the downside to a pay-per-bag program is that trash that doesn’t fit into the trash bag will not be picked up without an additional charge.

Walter noted that the per-bag program in Millcreek took effect a few years ago, and currently 459 customers have voluntarily signed up for the program. She said it’s especially convenient for people who work out of town – and, typically, eat out of town – and don’t generate as much trash as those who work in-town and cook at home.

Harborcreek Township also offers a pay-per-bag system, with five garbage bags costing the resident $20. The regular “unlimited service” –which does have a cap at 10 bags per week, their website says – costs a quarterly amount of $52.77. In both cases, an extra item tag costs an additional $5 for pickup.

In Fairview, the “bag service” pay-per-throw program costs the same as in Harborcreek -- $20 for five bags – while their contract with Waste Management for unlimited pickup at a fixed rate of $52.05 per quarter for the next three years.

Pay-as-you-throw: A better solution?

Galloway acknowledged that pay-as-you-throw programs encourage people to recycle, but the logistical challenge of starting one – purchasing bags or containers to provide to the public, making the effort to publicize the rules – requires overhead costs, and it’s a logistical challenge.

“That’s one of the reasons the city hasn’t done it – it puts the burden on us to get all these different containers, and storage, and keep track of who has them,” Galloway said. “It creates another problem on its own.”

Currently, the City of Erie has no limit on the amount of trash bags that someone can set out on garbage night to be picked up, Galloway said. The refuse bill for Erie residents is a combined bill for garbage and recycling services – and it’s the same $48 per quarter, whether people recycle or not.

But is that the best option? Critics say improvements can be made.

Philadelphia, for example, has a snazzy, state-of-the-art recycling rewards program in partnership with RecycleBank, which began in July 2010. Those who want to participate in the program call RecycleBank to sign up and are subsequently mailed a unique barcode sticker to place on their recycling carts. On pickup days, trucks retrofitted with RecycleBank technology weighs the household’s recyclables and converts it into points that are deposited into the household’s account.

The points are redeemed online to earn coupons for local and national businesses, from $1 off shampoo to free pet food or magazine subscriptions to gift certificates to local businesses and attractions. (Philadelphia, for example, has partnerships with DiBruno Brothers and The Please Touch Museum.)

Additionally, the RecycleBank website says, each household can use its unique barcode to track its carbon footprint and see how many gallons of oil and how many trees its recycling efforts saves.

But a “true” pay-as-you-throw program, like Philadelphia has, would be a big next step for Erie, Galloway said. She said Erie is in the “middle ground” of most cities – not an early adopter by any means, but constantly making progress.

She noted a series of three key improvements in Erie’s sustainability: In 2007, they switched to biodegradable bags for collectable, compostable leaves and grass clippings; in 2008, they switched to a single-stream recycling program; and in the years following that, they worked hard at obtaining grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to improve the city’s composing program. By those statistics, Erie is due for another wave-making improvement in its sustainability – could a cap for the number of trash bags or a pay-per-throw recycling program be it?

Only time will tell.

Though it’s a concept that’s worked in other cities, Erie resident Amanda Flick said she isn’t so sure.

“What's to stop people from putting out the maximum number of bags?” she said. “And then, if they have more, throwing the rest with a neighbor, family member or friend's trash who doesn't meet the maximum number?”

Dohoda agreed, saying that a more regimented program with tax breaks or coupons for other utility services might be more effective than a bag limit without any additional incentive.

“I don’t know that limiting bags would be an incentive to recycle,” she said.

In the meantime, Galloway said the compost program is thriving. More city residents are showing up to distribution sites per week to claim their free weekly load of compost, she said, either for their personal gardens or for community projects.

A few years ago, the City of Erie obtained a handful of grants from the DEP for its composting program, Galloway said, including funding for a $400,000 piece of compositing equipment and reimbursement to pave part of the composting site, located adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant on the Bayfront Parkway. (The paving was necessary because if compost sits in uneven ground and puddles of water, Galloway explained, the compost gets horrifically smelly.)

“They’re doing a good job,” she said of the composting staff. “It’s 100 times better than it was five years ago. We’ve really made a lot of improvements on the compost site, and we get a lot of appreciation from the neighborhoods that do beautification projects, thanking us for the compost and all the improvements we’ve made.”

So, what about that plastic peanut butter jar?

If it’s placed in the right receptacle, it could continue its life cycle for – theoretically – another few hundred years. Or you could throw it on the ground and risk it being carried away to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,”to join millions of tons of floating plastic waste that spans millions of miles between California and China.

It’s your call. Getting educated and changing your behavior may be more beneficial than you think.

Systemic change in the city’s recycling system can only come around through citizen support.

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