Philadelphia has had a citywide municipal recycling program with curbside collection since 1989. It’s a one-flow process (ie throw everything in a bin) and there is a scheduled pickup every week.
Road Department workers collected an average of 1,200 tons of recycling per week last year, a lower figure than in previous years. In July, Philly’s recycling rates are at an all-time low, making up just 9% of the waste collected, up from 18% a few years ago.
Part of the decline is because advances in materials mean that many things that can be recycled simply weigh less, according to city officials. Recycling has also become more expensive. Instead of being able to sell the materials – China was the main buyer – Philly now has to pay for recycling to get it out of the city’s hands.
Then there is the question of whether the city is mixing recyclable materials with waste. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, collection teams were told they could combine garbage and recycling because they were dealing with staff shortages. Later, in 2020, the city blamed bad weather for contaminating recycled materials prior to recall, causing them to be thrown in the trash. Residents say they still see collection teams mixing garbage and recycling at times, even though the city says this practice ceased months ago.
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Here’s everything you need to know about recycling in Philadelphia.
How to get a basket
The Philadelphia Department of Roads provides free recycling bins for all city residents. There is a limit of two per address per year.
If you need it, you can pick it up (one per trip) at any of these six health centers:
- Port Richmond: 3901 Delaware Ave., 215-685-1358
- Western Philadelphia: 5100 Grays Ave., 215-685-2600
- Strawberry Mansion: 2601 W. Glenwood Ave., 215-685-3955
- Southwest Philadelphia: 3303 S. 63rd St., 215-685-4290
- Northwest Philadelphia: Domino Lane and Umbria St., 215-685-2502
- Northeast Philadelphia: State Road. & Ashburner St., 215-685-8072
The centers are open from 8am to 6pm Monday to Saturday, but blue containers are in high demand, so the city recommends calling before you go to make sure there are containers available at that location.
You can also use any container under 32 gallons and under 40 pounds.
You will likely want to mark it to make it clear that it is intended for recycling, as waste and recycling are collected on the same day. Also a good practice when getting a new bin: write your address on the outside to claim it as yours, in case Streets workers put it down outside someone else’s home.
When to put it out
Recycling should be collected on the same day of the week that the garbage is collected. Find the day for your address here. (Note that if Monday is a public holiday, the whole week’s schedule is moved forward by one day.)
You should put your recycling outside in a bin before 7:00 am on the day of collection to make sure you don’t lose your trucks. The city is also asking to refrain from littering and recycling too early, before 7pm on the evening before collection day from April to September, or 5pm from October to March.
Take note of those time limits, because you can get a citation for taking out your bins too soon.
What to recycle
- Plastics (food containers, beverage bottles, jars, pumps and spray bottles)
- Paper (newspapers, magazines, junk mail, books, paper bags)
- Metals (cans, aluminum trays, spray cans)
- Cardboard (corrugated boxes, egg cartons, shipping boxes)
- Cartons (milk, juice, wine, soup)
The city lists a few examples here, and Green Philly offers specifics on the types of plastic you can put in the sidewalk bin.
No matter what it is, be sure to clean it first
Make sure the recyclable materials are clean and dry
The items you intend to recycle should not contain food or liquids. If the items cannot be cleaned completely, they cannot be recycled.
Including a greasy pizza box in the mix can ruin an entire recycling batch, the Department of Roads noted in 2017.
Be sure to let all containers dry before throwing them in the bin, so they don’t get wet or dirty your paper recyclables. Officials recommend putting a lid on the bin so paper and cardboard don’t get wet while sitting outside waiting for collection.
What not to put in the recycling bin
There is a whole list of things you might think are recyclable that shouldn’t end up in the bin.
- Plastic bags (can break recycling processing machines.)
- Needles and syringes (They are a danger to recycling workers. Follow these tips to dispose of them safely.)
- Metal coat hanger
- Things that can get tangled, such as pipes, ropes, ropes and chains
- Flammable substances, such as propane cylinders, rechargeable batteries and fuel containers
- Disposable plates, glasses and containers
- Greasy or food-stained paper and cardboard
- Handkerchiefs, paper towels and napkins
- Light bulbs
- Cassettes (VHS and audio)
- Pots and pans
Be sure to fold all cardboard boxes and remove packaging materials such as styrofoam peanuts or bubble wrap.
If you’re not sure if an item is recyclable, put it in the trash to avoid contaminating the rest of your recyclable materials, advises the Department of Roads. They even provide a motto: “When in doubt, keep it out.”
Other ways to recycle some of these things
Some of these things can be recycled in other ways.
PECO has an appliance recycling program, and you can even get a discount if your old item is eligible.
Plastic bags can be left in grocery stores that have specially marked containers for bag recycling. Check out bagandfilmrecycling.org for a map of the locations.
Some shipping and mailing companies accept peanut packaging, and some private recycling companies take Styrofoam items. Northeast foam recycling in Chalfont specifically requires Styrofoam No. 6, free of charge. Rabbit Recycling, a private recycling company with subscription and on-demand services, accepts Styrofoam.
You can donate clothes and household items to various organizations for reuse. If it’s no longer wearable, you could give it to a fabric recycling program.
This interactive city tool can help you find fabric recycling locations, donation delivery locations, and other options for responsible disposal of items you no longer need. And here is a list of services, created by the Municipality.
Companies that collect recycling for a fee
Here are some Philadelphia companies that provide separate collection services to individuals and / or businesses. The items they accept differ, so be sure to check with them for the requirements.