PITTSBURGH – When Pittsburgh (search) began fining residents earlier this year for not complying with the city's mandatory recycling law, it was venturing into relatively uncharted territory. Few Pennsylvania communities with mandatory recycling laws fine residents.
If city workers don't see bundles of newspapers or the blue bags used for glass, cans and plastic placed outside a home on recycling day, the city will contact the resident about the requirement, said Guy Costa, the public works director.
"If we send you a letter and then you continue not to recycle, then we send you a citation," Costa said, who called the fines a last resort.
The city has issued about 100 citations since stepping up enforcement in the spring. Fines with court costs are $62.50. A second offense costs more than $500, though Costa said none have been issued.
Costa said failing to recycle costs the city money. It's paid $11 a ton for glass, cans and plastics and $30 a ton for newspaper, Costa said. Statewide, the average cost to take municipal trash to a landfill is about $57 per ton, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection (search).
Pittsburgh, like other communities that recycle, also can qualify for performance grants, which help pay for manpower and equipment.
"There's a lot of incentives in there for the city and the residents to recycle as much as they can," Costa said. About 40 percent of city households recycle, he said.
While some people have complained about the fines, Costa said he's been getting mostly positive comments.
"The feedback I've been getting is, 'It's about time because I've been recycling and my neighbor hasn't been,"' Costa said.
Recycling became mandatory in 1988 in larger communities in Pennsylvania and has since expanded to many smaller communities. In 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available, the state recycling rate was about 38 percent, said DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun.
Neither the DEP nor the federal Environmental Protection Agency (search) track communities that fine residents for not recycling.
"We just want (recycling communities) to have a successful program," Rathbun said.
A sampling of communities showed fines are not used often. Recycling officials said they stress education instead.
Reading has issued very few fines said Ann Saurman, education and enforcement coordinator for the city's bureau of recycling and solid waste. Workers notify nonrecyclers by certified letter. The city will supply bins if needed and follow up to make sure the message has gotten across.
"Most of the time, those steps are effective," Saurman said.
Over the last half-dozen years, Saurman said, the city has had an average recycling compliance rate of 95 percent.
In Erie, where about 55 percent of households recycle, the carrot is being used to boost participation, said Sarah Galloway, the city's recycling and environmental resource program coordinator.
Last month, its recycling department began monitoring households to see if residents put out cans, bottles and newspapers. Households that do can win a $50 gift certificate to a grocery store.
"Instead of punishing people, we're rewarding them," Galloway said.
However, Gene Hejmanowski, the environmental director of Penn Township in York County, isn't above using the stick.
The township has a pay-as-you throw program where residents buy trash bags, which Hejmanowski said is more equitable than every resident paying a flat rate.
Hejmanowski and his crew fan out and check trash bags once residents place them out for pickup.
"If I find a recyclable item in your bag, I leave you with a warning subject to a $600 (maximum) fine," he said. Likewise, if he finds trash in recycling.
"I run a very tight program. I'm an ex-Marine and I run this like it was Parris Island," Hejmanowski said.