City Hall inflating Buffalo’s recycling rate

Mayor Byron Brown’s administration has found a new way to inflate the city’s recycling rate by counting clothing donations given to nonprofits such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army.

By taking credit for clothing donations – some 4,800 tons last year – the Brown administration is expanding on a practice started in 2013 of counting materials the city does not collect and which state and federal authorities discourage localities from including when calculating recycling rates.

Brown, by including these materials, has claimed an ever increasing recycling rate. But data obtained by Investigative Post shows the city’s curbside recycling rate has plateaued at about 11.3 percent – well below the national average of about 25 percent.

“The way to improve recycling is to get more people to recycle, not add things that before were never in there,” said Fillmore Common Council Member David Franczyk, a longtime recycling advocate.

An Investigative Post review of the city’s recycling efforts, the latest in a series of stories about the program, found both progress and problems.

The Brown administration has finally made good on its pledge to hire a marketing firm to promote recycling. In addition, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority has instituted a recycling program for all of its developments.

Problems persist, however.

The city’s recycling law still hasn’t been brought in line with the state mandate. And the school system has made little to no progress with increasing recycling in its 58 schools.

The mayor and Susan Attridge, the city’s recycling coordinator, refused interview requests. Mike DeGeorge, the mayor’s press secretary, mentioned the administration’s unhappiness with recent stories by Investigative Post and WGRZ about unsolved murders in the city while explaining Brown’s unwillingness to answer questions about recycling.

Franczyk said there used to be a lot of excitement centered around the city’s recycling program. Distributing green recycling totes to residents in late 2011 helped boost the rate by 64 percent in two years. But that excitement appears to have fizzled.

“You don’t see the leadership that you used to on recycling and if the public has that leadership they gotta kick us in our backsides to make sure we do better,” Franczyk said.

Inflating the rate

To make up for the lack of growth in the curbside recycling program, Brown’s administration found new materials to count. Clothing is the newest addition.

In addition to Goodwill and the Salvation Army, city officials counted clothing donations to Amvets, Hearts for the Homeless, Buffalo City Mission and St. Vincent de Paul.

The Brown administration refused to provide documentation of how it came to the estimate of almost 4,800 tons – almost 100 tons a week – in donated clothing or any proof that the clothing was donated by only city residents.

Investigative Post reported a year ago that the city’s recycling coordinator added estimates for bottles and cans returned to stores for the 5-cent deposits and appliances and other scrap metal that city officials acknowledge is picked by scavengers. The city had not previously counted these materials in calculating its recycling rate.

By counting bottle deposits, scrap metal and now clothing, the mayor was able to proclaim during his State of the City speech last month that Buffalo’s recycling rate climbed to 23 percent in 2014.

Attridge, the city’s recycling coordinator, counts these materials despite guidelines to the contrary from state and federal authorities.

For example, the state Department of Conservation discourages local governments from including bottle deposits to avoid double counting the returns on state figures. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says not to count clothing donations that aren’t recycled into rags.

Buffalo’s curbside rate – based primarily on paper, plastic and other materials that residents place in the green totes – inched up from 10.2 percent in 2012, 10.8 percent in 2013 to 11.3 percent this past year. That places Buffalo’s curbside recycling rate at less than half the estimated national average of about 25 percent.

Investigative Post surveyed 10 local towns and cities last year and found that Buffalo also ranked second to last in curbside recycling.

Buffalo also trails on a second recycling measure that combines materials placed in totes with electronics, hazardous waste, tires and yard trimmings that the city either collects at the curb or has a specific drop-off location. This expanded curbside rate inched up from 15 percent in 2013 to 15.5 percent last year, versus a national average of 34 percent.

The city will begin to market its recycling program this year in an effort to increase participation.

Legislative inaction

The mayor promised almost three years ago to hire a firm to promote the recycling program and educate residents but failed to follow through. Then, last October, the city finally hired the local branding firm Block Club to promote the program. The $50,000 contract includes a new logo, marketing material and social media strategy. Block Club plans to launch the “34 and more” campaign on Earth Day.

The city receives a $105,000 annual rebate from Republic-Allied Waste, its recycling contractor. The funds are supposed to be spent on recycling, but the Brown administration wouldn’t provide a breakdown of how that money was spent last year

Investigative Post requested the breakdown under the FOI law, but the administration still failed to release the data.

In addition to these shortcomings, the recycling provision in the City Charter is still not in compliance with state law that mandates recycling. The charter fails to specifically mandate recycling for one- and two-family households or institutions such as churches.

Recycling activists have tried for years to persuade the Brown administration to amend the charter so it matches the state mandate.

Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good and the Buffalo Recycling Alliance, has provided the city with a template to fix the charter’s recycling provision several times in recent years, along with other recommendations to improve the program.

The Brown administration has not acted on those recommendations, but Council President Darius Pridgen in February sponsored a resolution that asked the city’s legal department to review the charter and recommend changes.

“If the law needs to be adjusted so that we are in line that’s what we as legislators are supposed to do,” he said.

However, even if the law is brought in compliance with the state mandate, the mayor said last year that there are no plans to enforce the provision.

“We have really tried to stay away from enforcement,” the mayor said last May.

Enforcement is a critical step for successful programs, experts say.

“We can make the laws, but the laws have to be enforced,” Franczyk said.

Progress elsewhere in the city is mixed.

Housing authority is recycling

Investigative Post reported in May 2013 that the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority wasn’t recycling at any of its developments. The housing authority is the city’s largest landlord with 4,748 apartments that are home to 7,642 low-income families and senior citizens.

The authority launched a recycling program in January 2014 and recycling totes had been distributed at all 25 developments by November.

Officials reported a curbside recycling rate of 15.1 percent last year – higher than the citywide rate. Modesto Candelario, the authority’s assistant executive director, said he anticipates the rate will increase now that all developments are participating in the program.

In fact, data shows almost a four-fold increase in recyclables collected in the first two months of this year compared to the year prior. The increase in recycling for the first two months this year also cut the authority’s garbage collection bill by almost $6,200.

Although the authority can report progress, the Buffalo school district still doesn’t have a comprehensive recycling program and there’s modest progress to report since we initially documented the problem in November 2012.

Of the 58 schools, 27 continue to only recycle cardboard and paper. The remainder either use green totes or a larger receptacle for mixed recyclables.

Elena Cala, a Board of Education spokeswoman, would not answer why schools have not adopted a districtwide recycling program.

Franczyk said the continued shortcomings in the school and city programs underscore the need for more decisive action.

“We’ve got to do more than talk a good game,” he said. “We’ve got to radically get in there and start doing better with recycling.”