As Pennsylvania's recycling mandate nears expiration, state eyes overhaul
In coming up with a plan to save polar bears from climate change, students at Colfax Upper Elementary School decided to encourage recycling.
But Springdale, where their school is located, doesn't provide recycling to residents at their homes — nor does any municipality within the Allegheny Valley School District — because the state's 30-year-old recycling law says they don't have to.
Some say it's time to rethink that.
The law “as it exists today sets a very low bar, because that bar was a very high bar in 1988,” said Justin Stockdale, regional director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council, a grass-roots environmental organization.
“That's the nature of public policy. It was a very progressive, cutting-edge piece of legislation back then, the first of its kind in the nation.”
Under the state's recycling law, Act 101 of 1988, municipalities with fewer than 5,000 residents are not required to provide at-home, curb-side pickup of recyclables.
As a result, only 18 percent of the state's more than 2,500 municipalities are mandated to provide recycling, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
At-home recycling is popular, state officials say, especially in larger communities such as Hempfield Township, which in 2016 began picking up recyclable trash every week instead of every other week.
“That seems to have gone over very well,” township Manager Andrew Walz said. “This is a lot better. We can recycle more.”
Preventing a fee sunset
The looming expiration of a $2-per-ton fee on waste to support recycling programs could provide an opportunity to modernize the act. The fee is scheduled to sunset on Jan. 1, 2020, and advocates such as the Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania are calling for its renewal before the end of 2017 so applications for future grants aren't affected.
The fee raises more than $36 million each year to promote waste reduction and recycling.
“Should the funding sunset, grant programs will be discontinued, yet the requirements set forth in Act 101 will continue,” the recyclers' association says.
Leaders of the legislative committees that would tackle the issue have differing views.
Adam Pankake, executive director of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, wants to focus only on renewing the fee.
“Generally, people are supportive of Act 101. It's done a lot of great things across the state for recycling and seems to be working,” he said. “Reauthorization (of the fee) is palpable for a lot of people.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, chairman of the House committee, said the fee's expiration offers an opportunity to open the act to updates.
“Sometimes you need an element within the greater subject that creates a sense of urgency,” Maher said. “It's time for us to revisit and update this law. If we're going to have the fee, it becomes a question of, ‘What's the fee for? What are we trying to accomplish?' ”
State Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, supports the existing fee and thinks lowering the population threshold is something to consider, but he feels the state needs to provide more grants to help smaller towns get recycling programs going.
“Having this law in place really changed the way that people think about recycling in Pennsylvania. There's a common expectation of it now that didn't exist 30 years ago,” he said.
“I agree that having to reauthorize the (fee) gives us a good chance to review it and see if there are things the state can do better.”
An opportunity to update?
Widener University law professor John Dernbach, who drafted the original statute, said the act “could stand to be updated.”
“The program is rudderless and drifting,” he said. “There has been no new goal in over a decade.”
Dernbach said the per-ton fee should be made permanent, and increased to account for inflation.
“The program comes apart if you don't have the fee,” he said.
Associations representing waste haulers agree with continuing the fee but disagree on revisiting the entire law.
“Our fear is, if they open it up, it's going to be a nightmare. So many people will want to do so many different things,” said Gary Roberts, executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Waste Haulers Association, which represents smaller companies. “There's many things that could be changed. We know for a fact there are things that should be changed in there, but we know how things go in government. God knows what will happen if they do open it up.”
The Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, representing larger companies, favors modernizing the act and is working on potential updates, Executive Director Mary Webber said.
One change would be to measure recyclables by volume instead of weight, to account for most recyclables today being plastic water bottles instead of heavier newspaper and glass.
Lowering the population threshold also is on the association's wish list. “If it makes economic sense to drive a truck down the street to pick up the garbage, then we think recycling should be offered,” she said.
Butler County has done that since 1992, when a county-wide ordinance was passed requiring haulers picking up trash to also offer recycling.
“That was to encourage people to recycle and to make sure there was a level playing field for all of the haulers,” said Cheryl Kelly, the county's recycling and waste management coordinator. “If you have garbage service, you get recycling if you want it.”
Ed Vogel Jr., vice president of Vogel Disposal, said he'd recommend Butler County's example as a statewide rule.
“It's much better picking it up at the home. You get more of it,” Vogel said. “The easier you can make it for the people, the more they'll do it.”
Without much recycling going on in the 1980s, the idea behind the 5,000 population threshold was to focus on larger areas, Dernbach said.
“The thing we did not want to do was be accused of putting together a program that was going to be very costly and not achieve very much material recovery,” he said.
The focus on larger municipalities means that, while the number of municipalities required to recycle is small, almost 70 percent — or 8.7 million — of the state's almost 13 million residents are covered, according to the DEP.
But there are far fewer without access to recycling than those numbers suggest.
When communities that voluntarily provide recycling through curb-side pickup or drop-off locations are counted, that leaves about 1 million without recycling, Dernbach said.
“Around the state, you'll find there's a lot of places that have it that aren't required to have it,” Stockdale said. “They do it because, politically, it's a smart thing to do.”
Cheswick had been one of those communities, most recently providing Dumpsters for recyclables. Borough Council had them removed earlier this year, citing misuse and abuse.
Despite that example, East Deer commissioners are going to give it a try, recently deciding to place a Dumpster of their own, with hopes that camera surveillance will deter abuse.
“That system is pretty predictable,” Stockdale said. “It's not going to work well.”
Tarentum had the same problems as Cheswick with its recycling dumpsters and removed them, Manager Mike Gutonski said. Placing them under lights and camera monitoring didn't deter abuse.
“It's unfortunate that decent people have to be penalized,” Gutonski said.
Tarentum was once required to provide curb-side recycling, but it was eliminated after the borough's population fell below 5,000.
Delmont isn't required to recycle but does. Councilman David Weber said people moving into the borough from places that had recycling expected it there, too.
“There were a lot of people who really wanted recycling even though it wasn't mandated,” Weber said.
Residents once were able to take recyclables to a monthly collection run by community groups, but that was ended.
Delmont residents now arrange for their own garbage collection. To replace that, the borough is working to award a community-wide contract that will include voluntary recycling for all residents.
Instead of costing more, it's expected to lower residents' quarterly cost from an average of $60 to about $45, Weber said. The savings is possible by having one hauler for the entire community.
And, “It's the right thing to do,” he said.
Weber agrees with lowering the threshold.
“If you can keep it out of the landfill, I don't know what the size of the community has to do with it,” he said.
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4701 or at email@example.com.