Dumpster divers in Niagara Falls find jackpots 5 cents at a time in the form of cans and bottles by the bagful in the garbage.
A scruffy man who regularly pulls the bottles and cans out of the trash behind Hyde Park Ice Pavilion said his motivation is simple: “M-O-N-E-Y.”
That lesson is lost on officials in most of the largest cities and towns in Niagara and Erie counties, where recycling programs are largely an afterthought, an Investigative Post analysis has found.
Most of the localities surveyed employ none of the policies and practices considered essential to successful recycling programs. What they do is provide residents with recycling totes or bins, circulate a leaflet once in a while and hope for the best.
Some don’t even collect data from private haulers that pick up residential trash and recyclables.
As a result, curbside recycling rates lag behind the national average in nine of the 10 local cities and towns surveyed. Precise rates are difficult to calculate because of incomplete data and different reporting criteria, but it appears the curbside recycling rate is about 25 percent nationally versus about 13 percent locally.
The failure to recycle has economic and environmental consequences. Investigative Post calculated that the 10 cities and towns surveyed would collectively save almost $2.2 million a year if they recycled closer to the national average.
“I think teaching people that it’s going to save taxpayers money is going to really resonate,” said Sam Magavern, a law professor at the University at Buffalo and founder of the Buffalo Recycling Alliance.
To gauge the effectiveness of local programs, Investigative Post worked with UB law students and a researcher with the Recycling Alliance to calculate curbside recycling rates for 2012, review city and town laws for compliance with the state mandate and determine if programs incorporate best practices that have increased recycling rates elsewhere.
Amherst, with a curbside recycling rate of 24 percent and rising, is doing the best job.
“We have gone all in for recycling,” said Amherst Supervisor Barry Weinstein.
On the opposite end, Niagara Falls is the worst, with a recycling rate of 4 percent.
“We have recycling in the City of Niagara Falls, but our compliance rate is very poor,” said Mayor Paul Dyster.
Other underperforming municipalities are the cities of Buffalo and North Tonawanda and the towns of Cheektowaga, Tonawanda, Lancaster, Clarence, Hamburg and West Seneca.
Here are the key findings:
• Curbside recycling rates, or the ratio of materials placed in wheeled totes or bins compared to trash cans, were substantially below the national average in every locality surveyed except Amherst.
• Laws in Buffalo, West Seneca and Cheektowaga don’t conform with state law that mandates recycling for all residents, businesses and institutions.
• Amherst is the only municipality that employed any best practices. Most of the rest have failed to make a serious effort to educate the public, offer incentives or enforce their ordinances.
• Most cities and towns have started providing residents with wheeled recycling totes in recent years. Recycling rates typically increase when totes are introduced, but usually level off without constant promotion and education.
“I think we could be doing a lot better,” Magavern said.
Recycling is the law
In 1992, localities had to enact laws that mandate recycling for all residents, businesses and institutions. But the laws in Buffalo, West Seneca and Cheektowaga do not comply. Laws in the two towns mandate participation only for residents. Buffalo’s law fails to mandate recycling for one- and two-family homes and institutions such as hospitals and schools.
Cities and towns that employ best practices usually have better success and achieve recycling rates as high as 75 percent. Successful programs often start with aggressive education and promotional campaigns. That’s not the case here.
“When you look at the other cities that have full-on recycling programs, they are spending money on it. It’s a priority for them,” Magavern said.
Clarence Supervisor David Hartzell said he would like the three waste disposal companies that serve residents and businesses to boost their education efforts.
“I think the town would even chip in,” he said, “but that doesn’t seem to be something on their agenda. I think that is kind of sad.”
Still, the town’s curbside recycling rate is 17 percent, second to Amherst.
“This is not 1950,” Hartzell said. “There is simply no excuse for municipalities and individuals to not recycle.”
Experience elsewhere has shown that providing financial incentives – ranging from coupons at local businesses to reduced user fees for trash collection – and enforcement in the form of warnings or fines increase recycling rates. But few cities and towns here employ such strategies.
Amherst and West Seneca have warned households for not recycling. But there’s no evidence of fines or other penalties being imposed in any of the cities or towns.
“We have a kind approach,” said West Seneca Supervisor Sheila Meegan.
Amherst has tried an incentive in the form of coupons to local stores, but Weinstein said it “hasn’t been all that successful.”
Bert Donahue, who lives in Niagara Falls’ LaSalle community, only has to look at the Niagara River behind his house for evidence of his city’s poor recycling program.
“If you go out in that river you’ll see the cups, the glass and the cans,” he said.
Niagara Falls hopes to boost recycling while reducing its garbage through a program the City Council approved last month with Modern Corp. The launch later this year includes wheeled totes, an education campaign and eventually enforcement. Dyster said the goal is to reduce garbage collections by 10 percent and increase the recycling rate to 20 percent. Doing so would save the city $550,000 annually.
“The plan is to go with a very, very heavy education effort and then to issue like an oops tag,” Dyster said.
Buffalo last year hired a recycling coordinator – the only locality of those surveyed that has a full-time employee assigned to the task. The rest assign the work to someone with other duties, often the highway superintendent or public works commissioner, who, in North Tonawanda, didn’t even know how to calculate his city’s recycling rate.
Regardless, Bradley Rowles said the city offers a “Cadillac” recycling program that includes electronics, hazardous waste and demolition collections – materials residents don’t place in recycling bins but that get picked up and diverted from a landfill.
Then there is Hamburg, which doesn’t even collect recycling data. Hamburg Supervisor Steven Walters did not respond to an interview request; neither did Lancaster Supervisor Dino Fudoli and Cheektowaga Supervisor Mary Holtz.
One way to boost recycling is by replacing small bins with wheeled totes. Most localities studied already have or are beginning to introduce totes. West Seneca, North Tonawanda and Cheektowaga are among the latest to do so. But they limited promotion and education to ads in newspapers and fliers.
Despite this, Meegan said: “I know we have increased the awareness and people are thrilled about these new totes.”
North Tonawanda Mayor Robert Ortt said the city this past year banked $15,000 in recycling revenue and avoided $65,000 in dump fees. But only 30 percent of the households have the new totes.
“Our goal is to make it easier, to encourage recycling, a little public education,” he said, “but certainly there’s room for our program to grow and get better.”
The Town of Tonawanda still has the older laundry-basket sized recycling bins. William Swanson, the town’s highway superintendent, said the town needs $1.5 million to make the switch to totes, “but there’s just not enough money right now.”
While most cities and towns surveyed dump their garbage at landfills, the Town of Tonawanda sends most of its garbage to Covanta, a waste-to-energy plant in Niagara County. There’s debate whether burning trash to create electricity is more economical and better for the environment. “It’s making energy, isn’t it?” Swanson said.
Recycling saves money
Cities and towns have a financial incentive to promote recycling. The localities that manage their own recycling and trash collection or contract it out to a private firm pay to dump garbage at a landfill or an incinerator. They get paid for every ton of recyclables. Costs and revenue differ from place to place.
Investigative Post estimated the 10 cities and towns collectively miss out on about $2.2 million in savings and revenue annually by failing to recycle at the national average.
“The more you recycle and the less you throw out, the more money you save for the taxpayers,” Magavern said. “That is a really important message.”