The collective groan on Mt. Lebanon trash days this year has been: Well, what can we recycle now? For nearly 30 years, Mt. Lebanon’s efforts to recycle increased, until this year, when global market forces and hauler demands slashed the curbside recycling list, putting the brakes on growth, making conscientious recyclers dyspeptic on trash day—and leaving other residents wondering why we are bothering to recycle at all.
ow did we get here? In 1988, state legislators passed the Municipal Waste Planning, Recycling and Waste Reduction Act, also known as Act 101, which required Mt. Lebanon and other towns with more than 10,000 residents to implement curbside recycling programs by September 1990 and collect at least three types of items from this list: glass (clear or colored); plastics; aluminum, steel and bimetal cans; high grade office paper; corrugated paper and newspaper.
Mt. Lebanon selected glass and plastic bottles, metal cans and newspapers for its recycling program. (We were on the forefront of recycling 15 years earlier when we began curbside collection of fallen leaves.) With a grant funding public education programs, Mt. Lebanon Magazine was filled with “How To…” articles, explaining how residents should prepare items in separate bins. During the week of July 9, 1990, Mt. Lebanon had its first bi-weekly residential pickup at curbside—two months earlier than the law required. At the time, the nationwide compliance rate for recycling was 65 percent, but Mt. Lebanon’s was higher, with 70 percent participation just four months into the program and 75 percent by year’s end. Collections totaled about 125 tons per month.
As years passed, other recycling opportunities increased. Residents can recycle Christmas trees and woody waste at curbside or take a short trip to the public works facility off Cedar Boulevard to recycle electronics or have their paper shredded and recycled. Periodic hazardous waste events liberate Mt. Lebanon garages of paint, gasoline, antifreeze, car batteries and other poisons.
By 2009, Mt. Lebanon and members of the South Hills Area Council of Governments (SHACOG) began single stream recycling, which meant residents could put all recyclable materials together in one bin at the curb instead of separating them. The emphasis was on recycling as much as possible. The ease of that program, and the addition of such new recyclable items as higher number plastic containers, meant people recycled tons more. In 2012, we recycled so much we beat all of our South Hills neighbors in a recycling tonnage contest.
In 2014, we were recycling between 150 and 250 tons per month. But little did we know that quantity was starting to mean our quality was dropping. Broken bottles and greasy pizza boxes sullied the loads, earning the dastardly name “contamination” from recycling processing facilities and resulting in recycling ending up in landfills anyway. What we were doing was “wishcycling:” putting items we thought we should recycle into the bins and hoping someone else down the line could figure out how to make it happen.
Pacific Rim countries that collected United States’ shipping containers full of recyclables suddenly closed the docks and we were left to quickly solve the problem here at the same time economic forces dropped the prices haulers could earn from selling recyclable materials.
Cue the expiration of our five-year waste hauling contract with Republic Services in December 2018. During the bidding process, SHACOG, which saves us money by offering contractors a larger customer base to take advantage of economies of scale, learned that none of the three haulers who bid on our contract would accept items residents had come to recycle frequently: glass, plastics numbered 3-7 or anything with any residual food or liquid in it or on it. Metal cans, plastic bottles, jugs, jars and tubs numbered 1 and 2, paper and cardboard are still accepted. The contract calls for penalties to the municipality for recycling truckloads that are more than 40 percent contaminated.
Residents recoiled—they were used to recycling more than 95,000 pounds of glass per MONTH and now they would either have to put it in the trash or drive it somewhere to recycle it. Municipal officials got to work looking for options.
efuse is a big-ticket item. Collection for 2019 will cost $2.2 million, with $440,000 of that going toward recycling. It appeared to Mt. Lebanon officials that adding glass collection was going to be difficult.
Waste Management, which eventually won the contract for 18 of the SHACOG communities, was asked to bid for curbside glass collection in case residents would support the additional cost. The company said it would not submit a quote and had no interest in glass collection—not even at exorbitant prices. Mt. Lebanon looked at handling the service itself, but by the time the estimates were tallied for two trucks, two employees, gas to get to recycling plants (all far from Mt. Lebanon), vehicle maintenance and the cost of recycling itself, it was out of reach.
One private company offered to contract with residents independently for curbside glass pickup but it wanted a 25 percent participation rate among Mt. Lebanon homes, at a potential cost of $12-$16 per month. After surveying residents, the commission chose to engage in a cooperative effort with the nonprofit Pennsylvania Resources Council to pay for periodic glass collection events. PRC brought on many other communities and now we have a network of local collections (including one scheduled for Mt. Lebanon Park on October 12 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) At a June collection event, Mt. Lebanon was the largest participant with 382 cars of the event’s 550. For these events, Mt. Lebanon pays a portion of the cost. Other communities and corporate sponsors pick up the rest.
At the same time, Michael Bros. Hauling and Recycling, in Baldwin and Reserve, began collecting glass at its facilities for free. Reported numbers indicate Mt. Lebanon residents make up a large part of participants at the Baldwin location. Residents may take glass to Baldwin location, 901 Horning Road, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Reserve location, 408 Hoffman Road, is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Michael Bros. will also accept cardboard for free.
espite the frustration, we are doing a great job. “Mt. Lebanon residents have been very responsive to the changes necessitated by the new garbage contract. We have gone from being one of the highest recycling communities in quantity to one of the best in quality of materials,” says Assistant Municipal Manager Ian McMeans, who has been working directly on the recycling issue, along with Municipal Manager Keith McGill and Public Works Director Rudy Sukal.
Curbside, we are recycling between 110 and 148 tons a month, although about 16 percent of that is not recyclable. Still, our contamination level is dropping. During the first half of 2019 and after a vigorous education campaign, audits indicate our glass in the recycling bin rate is about 2.7 tons a month (compared to about 50 tons per month in 2014) and unrecyclable plastics are less than a ton per month (compared to 5 tons per month in 2014.)
“At the end of the day, the more quality material is put in recycling bins, the more will be able to be reused rather than going to the landfill,” McMeans says. “The feedback we have received from the contractor has been positive—that overall contamination in the South Hills communities is down from approximately 30 percent last year to about 18 percent through the first half of 2019. The largest contaminants they are still seeing are plastic bags and pizza boxes.”
Residents also should not put recyclables in bags or boxes of any kind, even if those items are themselves recyclable curbside.
For those who say they can’t be bothered with all the rules, and ask why Mt. Lebanon is recycling at all with the lack of financial benefit, it’s simple: Act 101 still requires us to. And it’s the right thing to do.
“I understand that all the changes are frustrating,” says Abby Lawler-Morycz, chair of the Mt. Lebanon Environmental Sustainability Board. “But just because things are changing doesn’t mean we should give up altogether. … We need to be creative. We need to first look at how we can reduce. We need to support manufacturers of recycling goods [and] support manufacturers and retailers that reduce their use of packaging.”
Even if more things do end up in the landfill, we should still recycle at the curb, Lawler-Morycz says. “If we abandon curbside recycling and throw everything in the trash or keep sending our recycling facilities materials that they cannot sell, we are sending the message that we never really cared at all.”
Starting in October, Mt. Lebanon’s seven-member volunteer Environmental Sustainability Board will have a recycling tip in each Mt. Lebanon Magazine. Tips will include things like where you can take items to be recycled and how to reduce our dependence on non-recyclable items.