Philly is burning half of its recyclables. Is Pittsburgh?

Here’s what happens after you put out your blue bin.

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Robbie Shade / Flickr
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Every two weeks you gather recyclables and set them curbside for pickup. If you’re particularly conscientious, or slightly obsessive, you clean them and separate good cardboard from pizza stained. But instead of actually being recycled, all of these materials, the fruit of your labor, are dumped into a glowing incinerator, set on fire and wafted into the atmosphere.

If you didn’t find that funny, just imagine how Philadelphians felt upon recently learning that this exact scenario was happening with roughly 50 percent of the recyclables collected there, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Officials blamed the largest importer of waste products in the world, China, which tightened its standards recently to accept only the purest recyclables and not the kind of hodgepodge produced by single-stream programs in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Yes, Pittsburgh.

But before you ditch your blue bins or march on City Hall, depending on your level of commitment, know that Pittsburgh officials say your recycling is not in vain — at least not yet.

While Philly is burning recyclables, in part, because it simply costs too much to process them to China’s specifications or to find markets for them in general amid a glut, Pittsburgh is yet to have such a problem, said Shawn Wigle, program supervisor of Environmental Services for the city. In fact, Wigle said the city’s still earning money off its recycling program, though he acknowledges it’s less than before.

This is how it works: Pittsburgh’s recycling is collected by city crews and sent to a contractor, Recycle Source. Recycle Source processes the materials at its Hazelwood facility and sells them to a third party. It then splits the revenue 60-40 with the city — the larger share going to the ‘Burgh.

John Hudock, general manager of Recycle Source, told The Incline by phone: “We are in no way disposing of or sending recyclables to be incinerated, in no way shape or form.”

Wigle said the city’s contract with Recycle Source “requires them to recycle the material and abide by all federal, state and local laws.” And, he said, it would actually be more costly for them to landfill all of those recyclables at this point.

Wigle said while the city has made roughly $10,000 a year through its arrangement with Recycle Source since 2014, “to landfill the same tonnage would cost over $448,000 a year.”

As for why it’s been a different story in Philadelphia, factors include the same market forces faced by everyone else but also the size of that city and its recycling program and the renegotiation of a contract with its processor/contractor that would have seen the city go from getting paid $67.35 a ton for its recyclables to it costing the city $170 a ton.

“We would have gone from paying $2 million a year for recycling to $8 million,” Scott McGrath, the city’s environmental planner, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Long story short: Philadelphia recycling was burned while the city holds out for a better price.

Meanwhile, changes are being eyed to improve the efficiency of Pittsburgh’s program, and mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty told the Post-Gazette the city is exploring other options but has a contract with Recycle Source through June 2020.