Clipboard in hand, Terra Nonack paces Market Square in early September to ask business owners if they abide by a city law that has been on the books for nearly two decades: Does your business recycle?
The owner of a pizzeria tells Nonack, despite the bottled water on display, that he doesn't have anything to recycle. At a drycleaner, workers who sit across from a nearly full trash can topped with soda bottles and newspapers say they don't know much about recycling.
Wherever she popped the question, Nonack, an assistant surveyor contracted by the city, got mostly no's or blank stares.
Phyllis Gibson, the city's recycling coordinator, says the city collects from about 115,000 households, representing a compliance rate near 80 percent, although the rate varies widely among neighborhoods. But business owners are responsible for their own garbage disposal, and recycling typically is handled by commercial haulers under contract. Many haulers in Pittsburgh won't separate recyclables from trash unless the business owners pay, says Danielle Crumrine of PA CleanWays of Allegheny County, a consultant retained by the city to promote business recycling Downtown.
If Nonack's reception is any sign, city officials are in for an uphill battle as they aim this fall to push for greater recycling compliance by businesses, beginning with merchants and commercial buildings Downtown.
Ramping up the tonnage of recyclables collected within the city ... namely newspaper, office paper, plastics and aluminum cans ... has been one of the goals of late Mayor Bob O'Connor's "Redd Up" campaign. At the Steelers' opener on Sept. 7, more than 1,200 pounds of recyclables were collected in his honor.
After surveying 50 small businesses Downtown, as well as commercial districts in Regent Square and the South Side, Nonack says merchants cited cost, inconvenience and their belief that they don't have a whole lot to recycle as top reasons why they fail to follow city law.
"The Downtown businesses were not very receptive," she said afterward. "It was difficult to do those surveys." The business owners, she added, feel that "it's the city's responsibility to take care of everything for them."
Under the recycling ordinance, all business establishments must recycle high-grade office paper, corrugated cardboard, aluminum cans and leaf waste. Violators are subject to fines of $1,000 for the first offense and $5,000 for subsequent breaches. But Gibson admits: "We have not been enforcing it because we don't have the personnel." The city currently has only one code-enforcement officer to monitor compliance in residential areas and no plans to hire another.
Beginning later this month, Crumrine will oversee the installation of 12 receptacles for recyclables at some of the most popular spots Downtown. She hopes that Downtown denizens will make it a habit to separate what can be recycled and start pitching in. Crumrine says she is also looking into setting up Dumpsters designated for business recycling off main drags, such as Carson Street.
Currently, small-business owners are encouraged by the city to haul their recyclables to a collection site in Hazelwood or the Strip District. But before most businesses budge, they may need to be convinced that recycling makes economic sense.
Although all of the 50-some haulers currently serving the city are asked to report the tonnage of recyclables they've collected, Gibson was unable to provide numbers and acknowledges, "We don't know if we're getting all that we can get. In order to increase business recycling, we need to get the haulers on board."
The region's largest haulers, BFI and Waste Management, did not return calls for comment.
Perhaps the haulers just need to be persuaded to see the other shade of green in recycling ... the dollar bills ... that the city already has discovered.
Last year the city received more than $200,000 from the Department of Environmental Protection for stepping up collection of recyclables. This year, the city is likely to rake in more than $400,000 in state bonuses for having collected more than 40,000 tons of recyclables in 2005, compared to 23,000 tons in 2004. Also, the city may get reimbursed for as much as $400,000 by the state for equipment and educational materials used to promote business recycling.
Of more importance to local businesses, rising prices for recyclables make picking up cans and old newspaper a more lucrative enterprise. Last year, the city's Bureau of Environmental Services reaped $180,000 in rebates from those who process recycled materials, while saving a similar amount in landfill fees. A contract the city signed with those processors, which went into effect in April, is expected to double the rebates to $400,000 a year.
Under the contract, processors are paying the city $46.50 per ton of newspaper and $41.06 per ton of commingled materials, such as bottles and cans. Only a few years ago, the city was paying as much as $19.28 a ton to dispose of the same materials.
"There couldn't be a better time than now to recycle. It's the best market in the last 10 years," says David Mazza, regional director of Pennsylvania Resources Council and the city's recycling coordinator until 2000.
Judging from alleyway Dumpsters chockfull of crushed soda cans from eateries and stacks of white office paper, businesses could attempt to turn recycling into another profit center. What is uncertain, however, is whether individual businesses generate sufficient amounts of recyclables to make money: While the city contracts for single trucks to haul recyclables from multiple residential streets, there may be many trucks hauling trash from many individual businesses on a single commercial street.
Though prices for recyclables are swelling, the ample landfill space in the Pittsburgh region means it may still be cheaper for trash haulers to dump everything rather than incur the labor costs of sorting out the recyclables. Haulers in the area pay tipping fees between $25 and $35 a ton, a bargain compared to the $65-85 per ton haulers around Philadelphia pay. Still, Mazza and others familiar with the recycling industry say if businesses can find ways to consolidate the collection of recyclable materials, costs can be kept down and gains realized. The key is to do the math right.
"What you have to look at is not just the value of the recyclables but also the reduction in waste-disposal costs," says Mazza. "That's the total economic benefit." In a typical office setting as much as half of the waste is, by Mazza's estimate, paper ... copy paper, newspaper, corrugated cardboard ... all hot commodities. A business can conceivably cut its garbage fees at least in half by asking its employees to set aside the recyclables and asking the hauler for rebates on the materials. "That now translates into dollars and cents for the city. What is holding you back from doing the same thing?" Mazza says.
The waste-disposal picture at office towers is more complex than that of the small businesses. Typically, building management uses its own housekeeping staff or contractors to collect the garbage and retains a hauler to cart it off. Later this month the city plans to survey property managers of some of the buildings on recycling practices.
While "larger businesses are more likely to see a cost benefit [from recycling] than a mom-and-pop store," says Ginette Walker-Vinski, the council's program coordinator who specializes in business recycling, it's up to the management company to launch the recycling effort and pass on the savings to tenants. "It's helpful to have the property managers to take the lead."
Right now, the city is waiting for the results of its surveys to figure out its next steps. Officials plan to educate city businesses before attempting to slap anyone with fines.
But ultimately, as Walker-Vinski puts it: Recycling "is the law and it is the cost of doing business."