Buffalo refuses to release recycling stats

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

Byron Brown’s administration is refusing to release the city’s recycling stats, even though the mayor recently touted the program’s supposed success during his State of the City speech last week.

Susan Attridge, the city’s recycling coordinator, originally told me she’d supply the statistics in early February when she finished adding in details from commercial recycling.

When that timeframe passed, I asked again. Attridge said she was still working on the data and would send it to me as soon as she finished.

That same week, Brown cited the city’s recycling stats during his Feb. 20 State of the City speech.

Wait a second … I thought the stats had not been compiled? How could this possibly be?

Investigative Post has published numerous stories on the city’s anemic recycling rates, with a focus on the curbside collection program that re-launched with new green totes in 2012. So, city officials know that we make this request about this time every year. It appears this time around they’re intent on stonewalling me.

On Thursday, I asked Attridge, again, for the spreadsheet provided in the past that details recycling activity.

“I am still waiting on some data but hope to have it done soon,” she wrote in an email.

But on the phone, she mentioned a few things that raised a red flag:

  • The city does not plan to provide the spreadsheet data that Public Works compiles each year. Instead, it intends to release an annual report required by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Problem is, the report is essentially worthless and misleading to anyone trying to do a real analysis on the city’s program. For instance, it does not provide the details necessary to calculate the curbside recycling rate.
  • If I want the stats, I will need to file a Freedom of Information Law request through the mayor’s spokesman, Mike DeGeorge. Routing requests through DeGeorge isn’t unusual, but Attridge did agree earlier this month to release the stats without filing an FOI request and working through the notoriously difficult DeGeorge, who has a reputation for not returning phone calls from reporters, much less arranging interviews or facilitating the release of public records.

In the meantime, the mayor cited the city’s recycling rate at 23 percent.

From the Buffalo News story:

A major campaign to increase city recycling will kick off on Earth Day in April. Recycling, Brown said, was at 8 percent in the city when he took office, and is now up to 23 percent, but he wants to get it closer to 34 percent. The “34 and more” campaign will be good for the environment, by encouraging recycling, and good for the city’s finances, since increasing recycling reduces the amount of trash that has to be picked up and disposed.

That’s good news, if the city isn’t inflating the numbers. That’s what they did last year, which Investigative Post reported in May 2014.

Here’s a snippet from that story:

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.

The city has seen increases in its recycling rate, but not as steep as it would like the citizenry to believe.

For example, here is data we cited in our last story on the city’s curbside recycling rates:

The above graph shows that Buffalo’s curbside recycling rate increased when green totes were introduced in 2012, but leveled off at still less than half the national average.

The mayor, in his State of the City address, did not mention any initiative to bring the City Charter’s recycling provisions in line with minimal requirements set by the state. As written, the city law does not require recycling in single and double homes and institutions such as hospitals and schools. I’ve pointed out this shortcoming, and more, in several stories.

The Buffalo Recycling Alliance has subsequently developed a set of recommendations to fix the law and improve the city’s recycling program. The Alliance also created this survey to gauge recycling habits.

There’s no good reason for the city’s failure to publish recycling stats on its website. I’ve found people actually do care about how Buffalo fares with recycling, and a little accountability can go a long way in achieving more success.

The administration’s refusal to release data thwarts accountability. Maybe that’s the point.