MERCER COUNTY —
When Pennsylvania mandated curbside recycling for its larger municipalities in 1998 – those with more than 5,000 people – there was grumbling about government interference in the lives of everyday people.
Some folks ignored the opportunity to put cans, bottles and the like in a separate container for recycling because they had spent their lifetimes throwing everything into one container, setting it by the curb, and letting someone else worry about it.
Or, as in some rural communities, they buried and burned their waste, eliminating the need for garbage hauling at all.
Recycling is much more accepted now than it was then as environmental motivations have become more prominent, but there still is a learning curve.
“I think it’s (recycling) accepted for those who want to do it,” said Jerry Bowser, general manager for Tri-County Industries Inc., Pine Township, a waste hauler that was forced to change its business model when the recycling mandate was enacted.
“For those who want to do it, it goes well,” Bowser said. “We see more and more people doing it.”
Single-stream recycling, where residents put all recyclables in one container, instead of separating certain items, has made residential recycling efforts “a lot easier,” he said.
“I wish more people would do it,” Bowser said of recycling. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Just like the change in state law led to increased recycling efforts, there is room for government leadership to further the concept along, he said.
Some municipalities still have unlimited trash pickup, which offers no incentive for residents to recycle, Bowser said.
Recycling bins provided to customers often are too small to meet the need. In communities that provide 20-gallon recycling bins, the bins fill up quickly, prompting some people to throw excess recyclables in their garbage, Bowser said.
He added that he understands there is a cost associated with providing larger recycling containers, but noted that the state has grants available for just that purpose.
The city of Hermitage tried to boost recycling in its last solid waste contract, which took effect in 2009, and things have worked out as hoped.
“The change in numbers has been pretty dramatic since the new contract went into effect in August 2009,” said City Manager Gary P. Hinkson. “That contract eliminated unlimited curbside garbage pickup to emphasize recycling, added a weekly yard waste pickup and offered larger recycling carts.”
The city, which makes 95-gallon recycling carts available, saw its recycling tonnage increase each year of the contract, from 419 tons in 2008 to 1,059 in 2013. The amount of yard waste also has climbed, from 120 tons to 797, during the same period, and the amount of garbage hauled away has fallen, from 4,858 tons to 4,117.
The city currently is under contract with Tri-County, a pact that expires this summer. Officials are preparing to advertise for bids for a new contract.
In nonmandated communities, Bowser sees some reason for optimism. He noted that in 2013, Grove City, a mandated community, recycled 223.1 tons, while nonmandated municipalities Pine Township recycled 90.77 tons and Springfield Township 26.96 tons. He called the townships’ numbers “not bad.”
Tri-County offers curbside recycling in nonmandated communities in Mercer, Butler, Crawford and Lawrence counties. The program provides 96-gallon carts for recycling and eliminates the need for communities to stage periodic recycling days. Residents can dispose of recyclables consistently and conveniently.
In 2012, Tri-County picked up 465 tons of rural recyclables.
As with any change in lifestyle, education about how things have been done and how they could be done better is key.
Nancy Bires, Hermitage School District’s environmental coordinator, noted the district’s elementary school students have been celebrating Earth Week for 24 years, recycling paper for about 20 years and recycling bottles and cans for five or six.
“I think our students are pretty passionate about recycling,” Bires said. “Several years ago our recycling bins were removed when the Mercer County Solid Waste Authority quit picking up our recyclables. Students were really upset. The students wrote persuasive letters to their state representatives about the importance of recycling.”
Bires said she tries to show a correlation between individual actions and the environment.
“I try to make them aware of how they contribute to climate change,” she said. “I tell them to turn off lights and help save the polar bears.”
Perhaps, recycling could take another step forward if there were a more consistent market for recyclable materials. Bowser said the answer to the question of whether Tri-County makes money from recycling is “yes and no.”
“We make money on volume,” Bowser said. “With the paper market going down again, it’s tough.”
Tons of recyclables put out for curbside pickup in 2013:
Sources: city of Hermitage and Tri-County Industries Inc., Pine Township.