From Garbage to Gold

October 21, 2011

SEPTA Implements Recycling Program That Pays

Last month, SEPTA took an important step forward in implementing its Sustainability Program by unveiling a comprehensive recycling program at stations on the Broad Street, Market-Frankford, and Trolley Lines. The program will save SEPTA an estimated $103,000 per year in waste disposal costs and generate $67,000 per year in new economic value through a revenue-sharing agreement with its new vendor.

The program has been years in the making. In fact, the City of Philadelphia has had a recycling ordinance since 1994, when Philadelphia's Streets Commissioner approved Commercial Regulations that require recycling in the commercial, residential, institutional and industrial sectors. But not until recently has the City actually enforced this wide-reaching regulation. But now that it is doing so, the City has its highest recycling rates ever. And it's paying off - in the form of reduced costs, increased revenues, and improved environmental performance.

And now, in an even more significant way: job creation. In April 2011, Waste Management Corporation, responsible for the separation and transfer of recyclable materials from the City of Philadelphia, opened a new $20 million facility in Northeast Philadelphia. The facility, which received LEED Silver Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for its environmentally friendly design, was deemed necessary to manage the spike in demand that has resulted from the City's dramatic increase in recycling rates. It is manned by 70 employees from the surrounding area - 70 new jobs that did not exist before the City began enforcing its recycling requirement.

SEPTA's Program

With SEPTA now on board, the demand for the handling of recyclables will only grow. The scope of SEPTA's program covers an estimated 10,400 tons of waste per year - all of which was previously sent to a landfill. Of that total, SEPTA commissioned an independent analysis that determined 55 percent to be recyclable, with plastics, aluminum cans, glass bottles, paper, and cardboard outpacing residual wet trash. For the first year, SEPTA has conservatively projected an 18.1 percent diversion rate and will be aggressively focusing on customer and employee education to increase compliance rates well beyond that mark. (SEPTA's Customer Service Division has created a new educational video to support this effort.)

Perhaps the most notable take away from SEPTA's program design is that it demonstrates to other large agencies and corporations that significant upfront resources need not be expended to get started with a cost-reducing, revenue-generating recycling effort. For example, instead of purchasing all new receptacles, SEPTA surveyed existing assets and determined that its inventory of receptacles was sufficient to simply repurpose some of them for recycling. While this "staggered" approach at most stations is not ideal ("ganging," or placing receptacles next to each other, has been shown to increase compliance rates), the interim measure has allowed SEPTA to at least get the program up-and-running at a nominal cost. Over time, SEPTA will evaluate performance to determine whether additional investments are justified to increase recycling rates.

Recycling at SEPTA's 13th Street Station (Lower Level)

The upshot: at the cost of new decals, signage, and blue bags, SEPTA will be complying with the City's regulation, reducing its waste disposal costs by nearly 10 percent, and improving its environmental performance, all at the same time. And, with many opportunities to extend these benefits in the years to come, SEPTA will be turning its attention to finding cost-effective solutions for extending the program to additional facilities not covered under the existing recycling contract.

Priority Goal Outcome
1 Comply with City of Philadelphia Ordinance Implementation at all City Rail Transit Stations
2 Reduce & Reuse Waste Projected 18.1% Diversion Rate
3 Minimize Upfront Costs Nominal Cost (Signs, Decals, Bags)
4 Minimize Ongoing Costs Nearly 10% Reduction in Hauling Contract Cost
5 Maximize Revenues Revenue-Sharing Built Into Contract
6 Brand SEPTA Sustainability Program SEPTA Sustainability Logo on All Signs & Decals

So, the next time you see a blue "SEPTA Sustainability" logo and blue bag at your station, make sure you throw all of your cans, bottles, newspapers, and magazines into that receptacle. In doing so, you'll be participating in an important sustainability initiative that is a "win-win-win" for the region - making SEPTA more efficient, creating local jobs, and of course, helping to save our planet.

Recycling Do's & Dont's

Recycle Do Not Recycle
Aluminum Cans Waxed Cartons
Steel & Tin Cans Paper Coffee Cups
Glass Bottles & Jars Aluminum Foil
Plastics (#1-7) Plastic Bags
Paper Styrofoam
Newspapers Food Items
Cardboard Other Wet Trash