By Carrot or By Stick, Philadelphia Needs to Step Up Commercial Recycling Enforcement

If you know me, you know I am a huge fan of Philadelphia.

I’ve seen great steps toward sustainability in the past couple of years, including improved single stream recycling, Big Belly Solar Trash Cans, and Recycle Bank. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few bones to pick. Interestingly enough, a few of the biggest bones seem to intersect in a way that begs for resolution.

Philadelphia is notorious for being a city that goes to great lengths to make its residents and businesses pay for the privilege of living here. In fact, it is our Business Privilege Tax – which recently got some national attention for its outrageousness – that has had small business owners like myself paying exorbitant amounts to the city despite paltry profits and minimum use of city resources. And you only need to turn on A&E’s Parking Wars to see that reducing carbon footprints isn’t the only reason to avoid driving around the city.

It’s pretty clear that the city is desperate to make every penny it can. And with taxes that drive away potential businesses, it doesn’t look they are too worried about stepping on any company’s toes. So why aren’t they collecting money from one of the simplest sources of revenue: Fine businesses for not recycling.

They could collect thousands of dollars and make some serious impact on landfill reduction. And collecting fees from businesses should be easier than collecting from residents – you can’t always chase a wayward taxpayer, but L&I can shut down a business faster than you can find a recycling bin.

Now, the city claims that they already do this. In fact, it is technically illegal for commercial buildings to not have paid recycling removal. My last inquiry to the Mayor’s Sustainability Office resulted in this response:

The Streets Department agrees that increased recycling does save the City money. The more we recycle the more we save on costly landfill fees. However, most businesses are privately collected, so the potential savings for increased recycling from businesses is minimal. Our enforcement program has written over 30,000 recycling violations over the last two years and will continue to target businesses and residents that do not recycle. During this time we have seen our recycling tonnages increase by more than 50%.

OK, so 30,000 recycling violations. They could write 30,000 recycling violations in one week. And how many of these were actually businesses? Residents aren’t really the problem anymore. Between free single stream recycling, increased awareness, and actual incentives like Recycle Bank, I rarely pass a house on trash day without a blue bin. That’s not to say that residential recycling shouldn’t be promoted and enforced, but let’s compare one household’s waste production with that of say, a restaurant or bar or office building – it is literally mountains versus molehills.

I was speaking with Vance Lehmkuhl who writes the Earth To Philly column for the Philadelphia Daily News, and he agreed that the city should be penalizing companies who fail to recycle. But on the flipside, it would be nice if they had the incentives that residents do. When I bring this topic up to business owners, they complain that they are forced to pay for their recycling pick up and management and don’t feel like shelling out the money. So maybe the city also needs to do a better job of giving businesses the incentives to recycle, perhaps with a tax break?

I find it hard to believe that these are novel ideas. Someone at the city government level must have considered that whether it’s by use of “the carrot or the stick,” businesses need to be encouraged to recycle.

Whether the city decides to get businesses on board for love of the planet or for their love of fining people, it doesn’t really matter as long as the ends justify the means.

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