Amid a challenging year of disruptions and negative headlines, Philadelphia reports the city is still working to achieve its "zero waste" goals by 2035 and reshape the way residents think about consumption.
According to a new progress report from Philadelphia's Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, the city has checked off every initiative set forth in its initial 2017 roadmap. Highlights include cutting illegal dumping volumes nearly in half, ramping up litter mitigation strategies, expanding public space recycling, improving data collection, growing community engagement through "zero waste" events and laying the early groundwork for organics recycling.
Despite this momentum, city officials recognize they have work to do when it comes to reorienting the public narrative around recycling. Starting late last year, following the expiration of a contract with Republic Services, Philadelphia consistently disposed about half of its recyclables over a period of about six months.
Zero Waste and Litter Director Nic Esposito told Waste Dive that happened in part because of a switch to "best value" contracting, which temporarily forced the city into the spot market to process its residential recyclables. Faced with significantly higher costs, the city chose to send material from areas with lower contamination rates to Waste Management and temporarily dispose the rest.
Waste Management, which previously held a contract for some of the city's recyclables, is now handling all material under a new agreement. Along with Covanta, the national giant was also awarded a new disposal contract for Philadelphia's waste over the summer. While those contracts included additional language and funding for "zero waste" initiatives, they were closely preceded by the news that the city was ending its Philacycle rewards and community engagement program (run by Recyclebank) due to rising costs.
Still, despite the headlines, Esposito has attempted to find a silver lining.
"[W]e do need to recycle certain materials, but it's not the end-all, be-all ... We have to just get reacquainted with the waste that we create, where it goes and how it affects our planet and our communities," he told Waste Dive earlier this fall, calling it a "great time" for his office's work. Even though much of the recycling coverage was negative, Esposito said, "at least we were talking about it."
Much of the city's work since launching its "zero waste" plan in 2017 has been geared toward establishing a baseline and building foundations for future action. Unlike many other cities with high diversion rate targets, Philadelphia has intentionally not yet given itself benchmarks to hit along the way.
One reason for this is because data collection and diversion rate calculations have long been set for an overhaul. As of this report, the city has a new methodology to calculate diversion rates that it plans to use going forward.
The Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet compiled its own database of sources, including "local haulers, recycling facilities, donation facilitators, and city operations that handle waste" to develop the statistic. Esposito confirmed this covers residential, commercial, industrial and institutional generators – including C&D material – among others. Under that framework, Philadelphia reported a citywide diversion rate of 50.3% for 2017.
In 2014, Philadelphia reported a residential diversion rate of 20.3% and a commercial rate of 45.4%. Because calculations were previously done by the city's Streets Department, using different methodologies, direct comparisons are not available.
This data no longer includes material going to incineration, regardless of whether it is converted into energy. That includes waste sent to Covanta, as well as Waste Management's local SpecFUEL plant. If that material was included, the city's rate would be 72.2%. Esposito said this was a conscious choice to better align with guidance from the U.S. EPA and others. However, like other major Northeast cities, he still sees a potential role for waste-to-energy technologies to handle any remaining waste in a 90% diversion rate scenario.
Other evolving measurement efforts include the introduction of an updated Commercial Waste Report buildings must submit annually. This new form was modeled after another ongoing project, the city's Municipal Building Waste Audit. Launched in 2017, the annual audit includes both city-owned and leased properties. In addition to the annual reports, 50 city-owned buildings have also begun submitting monthly reports on their waste generation.
Among respondents, the vast majority of buildings described recycling education and signage as some of their biggest challenges. Many also reported an interest in finding new ways to divert food waste, a growing priority for Philadelphia's Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet in the years ahead.
The city has numerous action items for 2020 – including greater access to public space recycling, improved data collection and advocacy around a local plastic bag ban – but organics diversion and waste reduction are among the top priorities.
In September, Philadelphia's Department of Parks and Recreation released a request for proposals for a company to run a new composting operation on city property. The contractor will also be responsible for collecting organics from agency properties around the city. To make this happen, Philadelphia has also been working with Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection to develop an urban composting permit, using this case as a demonstration project. If successful, Esposito hopes to see it applied to other cities around the state.
"There's a $4 billion a year horticulture and agriculture market here in this region," he said, citing the demand for quality compost. "If we can get the permitting figured out and open the doors for this ... I would love to see [possibly] 10 sites around the city that are just small businesses."
In the meantime, Philadelphia is getting close to launching a new citywide community composting network for residents. Modeled after Washington, D.C.'s network, the project is funded by Comcast and will include start-up training from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
While it appears the city could also see a new anaerobic digester built by RNG Energy Solutions, Esposito said it was too soon to know how that would affect future plans and his office still wants to see a "diversified organics portfolio."
Above all, an overall push for waste reduction is expected to be a "major focus" of Philadelphia's next phase. This will include rebranding the former Philacycle program into a new form that encourages community engagement around consumption and circular economy ideals.
“We can no longer go down the path of making, taking, and then trashing. Creating a thriving, lower-waste economy is a defining challenge for societies in the 21st century, and Philadelphia is proud to be at the forefront of developing solutions," said Mayor Jim Kenney in a statement announcing the progress report.
That approach will soon be in the spotlight as Philadelphia participates in a pilot of the C40 Thriving Cities Initiative. One of three cities selected in the world, Philadelphia will be working on a plan to reduce waste and consumption throughout 2020. In Esposito's view, changing that aspect of consumer culture is the only way to make meaningful progress toward the types of "zero waste" goals Philadelphia and so many others now have.
"We are getting wealthier as a nation and with that wealth comes lots of waste. Even in the city we're seeing it [with] the amount of illegal dumping that's happening right now because of all of the development. More people are moving here, you're going to have more trash. So how do you manage that?" he said. "We need to keep that awareness in front of people's minds and just try to show them how we're getting to a less wasteful, cleaner society."