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December 13, 2018

Careless Christmas party guests can ruin recycling for your whole block

In this holiday Q&A with the Philly Streets Dept. we learn what to do with used wrapping paper, bows, lights and other festive items

Recycling Holiday
Christmas recycling philadelphia Photo: Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice/Illustration: Emily Rolen

The Philadelphia Streets Department reports that the volume of recycling and trash residents put curbside significantly increases during Christmastime.

The month of December is big.

Sure, it's a popular time for ugly sweater parties, Christmas tree lightings, secret Santa swaps, family gatherings, and more food than anyone bargained for. But that's not what I'm talking about.

At the Philadelphia Streets Department, the month of December is the biggest ... for waste collection, that is.

RELATED: Stop recycling takeout containers, Philadelphia – but go ahead and leave caps on water bottles

The streets department recycles 10,000 to 12,000 tons of materials just during this one month. And that's not even including the leftover fruit cake that gets thrown away. During a typical month the rest of the year, the department only collects about 9,000 tons.

And the department says it's not just recycling that's overwhelming this month, but it's trash, too. They have to hire more people just to take care of it during the holiday season.

PhillyVoice got Environmental Director Scott McGrath on the phone again to follow-up on the recycling Q&A we published in September, which answered reader's burning questions. 

The positive feedback from the original piece inspired us to do it again: Christmas style. 

What happens to that wrapping paper you destroyed opening your new pair of shoes? How should you clean up from a holiday party? How many bows are too many bows on a package? 

We have answers. 

Hey, Scott! Thanks for making a return appearance for our holiday edition of recycling FAQs. So we know the holidays produce an enormous amount of waste. Do you and your staff always feel that this time of year?

Actually, the month of December is our biggest month in terms of recycling. ... Part of that is all of those Amazon boxes out there. Another part of it is people have events and parties and stuff. So you’re generating more bottles and cans. So we tend to get more materials because of that.

OK, let's dive right in with the literal biggest item: Christmas trees. We know we can recycle them and we know the city picks them up. So give me details.

There are 23 tree drop-off locations, those have not changed. They are posted on the website. We also take them at the drop-off centers, of course.

Let’s talk gifts — the culprit for so much waste. Can we recycle used wrapping paper?

Yeah, you can recycle the paper. … If it’s in large pieces, that’s fine. An 8.5-by-11 sheet of paper, the processing equipment is designed for that. Anything much smaller than that, it will have a difficult time separating it.

What about ribbons and bows?


Gifts bags?

If they are paper, yes. The plastic ones, no. A lot of them are paper and that’s fine.

Styrofoam packing nuggets?

Definitely no. The air pillow things and the styrofoam peanuts and all of those other things, that is all trash.

What about electronics? As people get new gadgets, what can they do with the old stuff like computers, phones, and TVs?

All electronics you can bring to our drop-off centers. We definitely don’t want them curbside, but we can take them at all of our drop-off centers. We take TVs and electronics. We always get a surge of old TVs at the drop-off centers in December and January and then again when the Super Bowl comes. (Ha!)

How about other popular gift items that might not be in the condition to resell like bicycles, furniture, old toys, purses, skis or snowboards, skateboards?

We would consider them trash. One option is to try Good Will or Habitat for Humanity’s Restore. We don't have any way of taking care of those materials.

Every year we seem to get complaints about an increase in recycling enforcement. Do you increase recycling cop patrols during the holidays?

No, we don’t normally increase our enforcement activities. We have the same number of people we always do. I just think people are more conscious of what’s going on this time of year.

What are the big things recycling inspectors look for that we can avoid this year?

Well, right now our focus is on plastic bags. Making sure people don't put their recycling in a plastic bag and don't put other bags in there. People need to remember just because they say recycling on them, we can't recycle them curbside.

The other issue we want people to be really conscious of is making sure any food waste doesn’t get in the recycling. A lot of times this year when they're doing a lot of stuff at home having parties, if you use paper plates you can’t recycle the paper plates. 

But sometimes what people do, at the end of their party or event, they just dump everything in the recycling bin … that’s sort of the worst case scenario for us. That will contaminate other material in the truck.

Oh, yikes.

If one person does that on a block, it could wreck all the material on the truck.

Rapid fire! Holiday lights? 

No. Anything with a cord … gets tied up in the processing equipment and it’s actually a serious danger to the workers in the plants.

Broken and unbroken glass ornaments or plastic ornaments? 

We don't want ornaments. It’s a different kind of glass. That’s actually an excellent question. 

No plastic ornaments. Same kind of thing. … Something that's small and irregularly shaped, the equipment in the plants aren’t going to be able to distinguish them. Multi-resin material is a real problem.

Cardboard toy packaging or plastic toy packaging?

The cardboard inserts in a box, that would be fine. The plastic, no. In part because you can’t separate that kind of material.

The large plastic toys, we appreciate people trying to recycle them but that’s a processing issue, they just can’t. Something like a motorized toy cars and stuff like that are a problem. ... They just end up in the trash.

Do you have to hire more people during the holidays to manage all of this?

They do try to staff up right during the holiday season in October and November and then they let the (staffing rate) get leveled back down to normal in the ... winter. Then everybody sort of hibernates. 

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