Philadelphia cancels recycling rewards program

Dive Brief:

  • Market changes have prompted Philadelphia to cancel its Philacycle community engagement and recycling rewards program that began in 2017through a partnership with Recyclebank. 
  • Because Philadelphia is now paying to recycle rather than receiving revenue, the program is no longer seen as viable. "With the changes and significant costs we have to bear for processing and recycling, we just can't continue to do business the same way," Philadelphia Recycling Director Kyle Lewis told Waste Dive.
  • Philacycle let residents earn points for recycling participation, education, training and volunteering through an online and mobile app-based system. Accumulated points could be traded for rewards such as gift cards. Residents who participated in Philacycle have until June 30 to use their reward points, and the program contract officially ends July 1. 

Dive Insight:

Philadelphia's recycling program gained attention earlier this year when news spread that it had been sending about half of its collected recyclables in recent months to an incinerator after a new contract with Republic Services couldn't be resolved. The city announced a new deal with Waste Management in April that will ensure recyclables are once again processed from all neighborhoods.

Philadelphia was receiving $5 million a year in recycling revenue when Philacycle began, and the program was seen as a way to share the benefits with citizens. But market changes in recent years meant Philadelphia was paying $45 a ton for recycling at the start of 2018, with costs up even more now. The Philacycle program itself cost the city anywhere from half a million dollars to $1.5 million, depending on the time. These factors led the city to deem the rewards program no longer feasible.

While some industry rhetoric currently centers on China as the sole culprit for recycling market challenges, Lewis pointed out a number of contributing factors. China's recyclable material ban and increased contamination standard did make a notable dent, but markets had already been in decline for at least a year before National Sword took effect. Further problems have ensued now that other Southeast Asian countries — including Malaysia — are tightening their standards and/or refusing imports of certain recyclables. The historic lack of investment in domestic recycling processing capacity was also a factor.

But according to Lewis, a key problem is "significant contamination in our [recycling] stream." In response, Philadelphia recently launched an educational campaign called "Take a Minute Before You Bin It," which involves engagement and communication such as radio and print ads, messaging at transit stops and partnerships with schools. Residents are asked to clean and dry their recyclable items and "if in doubt, throw it out."

While the city can't make any promises, Lewis said it could potentially re-launch a rewards program in the future. However, she noted, this change could also serve as a reset for how citizens view recycling and whether it should be incentivized. 

"The incentive for recycling is not really a gift card, but a long-term incentive making sure the planet is healthier," Lewis said. "The goal of recycling is to be better stewards of the resources we were given and save those resources by recycling. There's a long-term incentive such that our generation and those following us have a healthier environment to function in. But if we can, if the market allows us to restart an incentive program, we would certainly look into that."