Buffalo’s recycling program still struggles

Buffalo is trying to burnish its green credentials with big public investments to clean up its waterways and attract clean energy companies.

Recycling is an easier lift, but the city’s anemic program is plagued by fits and starts.

City Hall took the major step of distributing green recycling totes to residents in late 2011. Last year, Mayor Byron Brown hired a full-time recycling coordinator.

But City Hall is otherwise batting 0 for 4 when it comes to building a successful program. As a result, the city’s curbside recycling rate has leveled off and remains less than half the national average.

How is City Hall coming up short?

The City Charter does not require institutions and residents in one- and two-family houses to recycle, despite a state law that does. Nor does the city engage in key practices that have proven successful in boosting recycling rates elsewhere.

There’s no education program and money earmarked for that purpose is mostly unspent.

Despite the muck, plastic bottles, jugs, and cans littler Scajaquada Creek in Delaware Park.

Despite the muck, bottles, jugs, and cans litter Scajaquada Creek in Delaware Park.

Also, no effective financial incentives are offered to engage more residents to recycle. And the absence of a recycling mandate means no enforcement.

“I know there was the change to the larger recycling bins, but obviously it’s not making that big of a change,” said 17-year-old city resident Danielle Dolan, overlooking a section of Scajaquada Creek in Delaware Park littered with beer cans and plastic bottles.

An Investigative Post analysis of data obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law shows gains made in 2012 following the introduction of green totes leveled off last year.

The curbside recycling rate – based primarily on paper, plastics and other materials residents place in the green totes – jumped from 6.6 percent to 10.2 percent the first year totes were used. The rate inched up last year to 10.8 percent.

That places Buffalo’s curbside recycling rate at less than half the estimated national average of about 25 percent. Buffalo’s rate ranks near the bottom of the 10 largest cities and towns in Erie and Niagara counties surveyed by Investigative Post.

Brown discusses a different set of numbers in proclaiming the city’s recycling rate more than doubled to 20 percent in two years.

“If you look at where we were in 2011 to where we are presently, we’ve made a lot of progress,” the mayor said.

But to show dramatic improvement, the administration last year started including materials not counted in the past, such as scrap metal that officials acknowledge is actually picked by scavengers. It’s also counting bottles and cans returned to stores for the 5-cent deposit that state officials say should not be included in calculating recycling rates.

An Investigative Post analysis found:

  • Buffalo’s low recycling rate costs the city money. Trash collection services, mostly paid by the garbage user fee, lose $3 million a year. That deficit would be trimmed by about a third if the city recycled at a rate that approached the national average.
  • The mayor and Common Council have failed to amend the City Charter to bring it in line with state law that requires all residences, businesses and institutions recycle.
  • The city has not re-issued a request for proposals for a marketing and education program that Brown said was forthcoming in November 2012.
  • The city government has $472,106 designated for education and other recycling activity, but the funds have gone mostly unspent for up to six years. Spending has continued to lag in the past year since the recycling coordinator was hired. She has spent only $16,500 of $104,000 expended through March.
  • The public school system lacks a districtwide recycling program, although more schools are using green totes. Most schools continue to recycle only paper and cardboard.
  • The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the city’s largest landlord, is a month behind rolling out its recycling program.

While Brown answered general questions at an unrelated press conference, two staffers who oversee the recycling program declined interview requests, apparently at the direction of Press Secretary Mike DeGeorge, who ignored four interview requests.

Lost savings

The city’s recycling rate has fluctuated since the program’s inception about 25 years ago.

The rate peaked in the mid-1990s at 14 percent before bottoming out about a decade ago at 7 percent. The rate has bounced up and down since then.

The current curbside rate of 10.8 percent referred to in this story represents the percentage of waste collected that consists of recyclable materials placed in green totes, as opposed to garbage placed in blue totes.

This curbside rate deals primarily with residential waste, although some businesses participate in the program. The curbside rate does not include tires, electronics, leaves and brush, pop bottles returned to stores and scrap metal not placed in bins, which is included in a broader recycling rate not the subject of this story.

“Education is probably the single-most important aspect of recycling.”

Sam Magavern, founder of Buffalo Recycling Alliance

There is a financial, as well as environmental cost to not recycling. The city has to pay to dispose of garbage in landfills, but gets paid for recyclables.

The city’s Solid Waste Fund has been running a deficit for years, in part because the garbage user fee hasn’t been increased since 1996. Absent an increase, about the only way to reduce the deficit is to collect less trash and recycle more.

Increasing the curbside rate from 10.8 percent to the national average of approximately 25 percent would save the city about $1.1 million, Investigative Post estimates.

That estimate is in line with a 2012 study that found the city saves $70,000 to $100,000 annually for every 1 percent increase in the recycling rate.

“Even if we were to tie the national (recycling) average, we would still have a deficit,” City Comptroller Mark Schroeder said last year.

Best practices lacking

The mayor and Council have failed to correct flaws in the recycling law that effectively excuses residents in single and double homes and institutions such as hospitals and schools from recycling.

“Most people don’t even know it’s the law. They think it’s voluntary,” said Sam Magavern, the founder of the Buffalo Recycling Alliance and a law professor at University at Buffalo

Losing momentum

Buffalo’s curbside recycling rate increased when green totes were introduced in 2012, but leveled off last year at less than half the national average.

Year     Rate

2011      6.6%

2012    10.2%

2013    10.8%

Source: City of Buffalo

While the city doesn’t offer any direct incentives to recycle, property owners can save $25 in their annual garbage user fee if they opt for the smallest of three blue garbage totes. That could encourage recycling, but it’s not marketed that way and there’s scant evidence it does.

Another problem is the administration’s resistance to enforce the local law.

“Right now there are fines on the books for failure to recycle, but they’ve never been used,” Magavern said.

Brown isn’t keen on such a tact, however.

“We have really tried to stay away from enforcement,” he said.

New recycling containers in City Hall

New recycling containers in City Hall

One reason for the slowed improvement in the curbside rate is the failure of the mayor to follow through on a commitment he made 18 months ago to solicit proposals for an expansive education and marketing campaign.

“It was not stalled at all, we are perfecting the document,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, the administration is making little use of money set aside for recycling education and promotion. Its contract with Republic-Allied Waste provides the city with rebates worth $104,000 a year to promote recycling.

Some $472,000 sits idle in a city account. Among the spending this past year: $6,100 for recycling containers in City Hall and $7,800 for fliers and t-shirts.

These measures fall short of a comprehensive educational program that experts say is necessary.

“Education is probably the single-most important aspect of recycling,” Magavern said.

Meanwhile, the city’s school district and public housing authority do not have complete recycling programs.

Schools, public housing slow to move

In response to an Investigative Post report, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority committed to launching a recycling program that was to start in March.

“We are a little behind schedule,” said Modesto Candelario, the authority’s assistant executive director.

Plans call for the distribution of recycling totes to all 30 housing projects, which are home to some 7,600 low-income families and senior citizens.

Schools, meanwhile, do not have a comprehensive plan. Most only recycle paper and cardboard. That means cans, glass, and plastics get tossed in the garbage.

Sixteen schools use green totes, while 42 use dumpsters serviced by private haulers.

Susan Eager, the school system’s director of plant operations, did not respond to interview requests.

Although there is no districtwide education program, there has been progress in promoting recycling.

For example, seven schools participated in the national Recycle Bowl for the first time. More than 100 students submitted posters to a state recycling contest.

Magavern said schools need to do more.

“They really need to get on board with recycling,” he said.