Recycling on the rise in Niagara Falls

A year after getting serious about recycling, Niagara Falls has increased its recycling rate by 50 percent and cut the amount of trash it dumps in landfills by almost 20 percent.

The city’s recycling coordinator credits the success and the 17 percent curbside recycling rate over the past year to an effective marketing campaign led by a quirky mascot named Totes McGoats, whose outfit cost $100.

“The whole purpose wasn’t to be a man in a mask,” Brook D’Angelo, the recycling coordinator for Niagara Falls, said about the mascot. “The whole purpose was to have another way to educate the citizens.”

Buffalo, meanwhile, continues to make more modest progress in a curbside recycling program that it bolstered four years ago with the introduction of green totes and last year with a $90,000 marketing initiative.

After a first-year jump in recycling, the city’s curbside rate has inched up to 14.4 percent. Unlike Niagara Falls, Buffalo has not reduced the amount of trash it collects and dumps at landfills — some 116,000 tons a year.

Listen to Dan Telvock’s recycling report on WBFO

“A successful program reduces garbage,” said Neil Seldman, co-founder the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which helps local governments reduce waste.

The progress in both cities leaves them well short of the national average of 25 percent for curbside recycling programs.

“We all know that more needs to be done and we are committed to doing that work,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said at an Earth Day press conference.

Niagara Falls jumps ahead

Niagara Falls had the lowest curbside recycling rate in the region at 4 percent, a 2014 Investigative Post analysis found. Investigative Post analyzed the 2012 garbage and recycling data from the 10 largest municipalities in Erie and Niagara counties and found the rates were substantially below the national average in every locality but Amherst.

After the Investigative Post report, Niagara Falls launched a new recycling program in the summer of 2014, revised its solid waste laws for the first time in 40 years, and created the Solid Waste Education and Enforcement Team tasked with educating residents on the correct way to recycle.

D’Angelo, the program’s coordinator, said the city now limits the amount of garbage a household can throw away to what can fit in a 64-gallon tote each week and offers a 96-gallon tote for bi-weekly recycling. The city also has a part-time employee who scouts neighborhoods for compliance and uses what D’Angelo called “Oops Tags” to educate residents who are not recycling or are violating the garbage ordinance. Additional violations can result in a $75 fine, but the city has not issued any, she said.

D’Angelo, whose background is in marketing, said she spent the $100 out of pocket for the Totes McGoats mask and shirt — an idea that went viral.

“I had this strongest feeling of butterflies, I think a whole colony, because just from showing it to my friends and coworkers, they would immediately laugh and no one had ever seen anything like it,” she said.

Totes McGoats

Totes McGoats

The goals of the program, according to Mayor Paul Dyster in 2014, were to reduce garbage collections by 10 percent and increase the recycling rate to 20 percent.

The city came close to meeting the curbside recycling goal and exceeded the garbage reduction goal in the program’s first full year.

In 2015, the city reached a recycling rate of 17 percent and reduced its garbage tonnage by almost one-fifth, even without a program to compost yard waste.

“We want to get it up a few points every year until we are decreasing what we’re putting in the landfill significantly,” D’Angelo said.

Buffalo lags behind

Buffalo launched its green tote recycling program at a cost of nearly $1 million in 2012 and city residents responded well at first. The city reported a 49 percent increase in the amount of materials residents recycled at the curb in the program’s first year. As a result, the curbside recycling rate rose from 6.6 percent to 10.2 percent.

“There was tremendous response that first year,” Brown said.

The curbside program has made more modest progress since.

Buffalo introduced its green recycling totes in 2012

Buffalo introduced its green recycling totes in 2012.

Investigative Post has reported a series of stories documenting some of the reasons for the slowdown. For example, Buffalo officials failed to immediately launch a continuous marketing campaign or spend the $105,000 in annual rebates it received from Modern Corp., its former recycling contractor, for educational programs. In addition, the city failed to employ a recycling coordinator until 2013 when Brown hired Susan Attridge.

In April 2015, Attridge launched a $90,000 marketing and education campaign with the local advertising agency Block Club. The program included a new website and social media presence, promotional material, sidewalk stencils, billboards and advertisements.

The website, buffalorecycles.org, attracted 5,000 visitors over a nine-month period last year. In addition, 32 residents requested a green recycling tote through “request a tote” tab off the website. The Twitter account @RecycleBuffalo has 116 followers and the Facebook page has 316 “likes.”

Brown said that the effort “is working” and that city residents recycled “the highest amount ever.”

Buffalo residents did recycle a record 14,943 tons of materials in the green totes last year, but it was only a 1.9 percent increase from the prior year.

The city’s 14.4 percent curbside recycling rate is based on a more refined method the city instituted this past year. If the city stuck to its old method, the rate of increase was only one-tenth of a percentage point.

“We think we are seeing items diverted from the landfill significantly,” Brown said during an interview.

Shortcomings remain, however, even though the city has increased recycling tonnage each year and launched programs to divert electronics, clothing and yard waste from the garbage.

For example, the amount of garbage the city dumps in landfills has not decreased. The city has dumped about 116,000 tons of garbage annually since launching the green tote program.

Disposal costs for that much garbage ranged between $5.2 million and $6.9 million annually, an Investigative Post analysis found. The city can expect to pay an estimated $4.25 million this year due to a new contract with Waste Management Inc. that includes lower disposal fees.

As a result, the city’s Solid Waste Fund remains in the red. The current budget includes a $3.2 million transfer from the General Fund to subsidize the Solid Waste Fund, in addition to the $17.4 million still owed. The city has not raised its garbage user fee since it was imposed in 1996 and has failed to collect millions in fees.

In addition, only 17 of 58 city schools have green recycling totes. The remainder only recycle paper and cardboard, but Attridge said the private Nardin Academy Montessori and Westminster Charter School Academy did add food waste programs.

There is also a lack of enforcement or willingness to change the City Charter.

The recycling provision in the City Charter is still not in compliance with state law that mandates recycling for one- and two-family households or institutions such as churches. The Charter does mandate recycling for businesses and homes with three or more units, but Brown remains reluctant to enforce the rules or amend the City Charter.

“Our goal is not to look at it as an enforcement issue,” Brown said.

Next up for Buffalo residents is an incentive program to encourage residents to recycle more. The request for proposals was released on May 18.

“We’ve done a number of different things to divert materials from the landfill and we think ultimately, if we continue the program that we’ve established, we’re going to see success,” Brown said.