Boston has nearly doubled its residential recycling rate over the past five years, yet fewer than 1 in 5 pieces of household waste gets recycled, significantly less than in other large cities around the country.
Despite tens of millions of dollars spent, a raft of new programs, and the availability of curbside recycling to nearly everyone, the city last fiscal year recycled only 19 percent of all residential garbage, about 30,000 tons, city officials said.
By comparison, Seattle and San Jose, Calif., reported recycling 60 percent of their residential waste; San Francisco said it recycled 55 percent; and cities such as Memphis; Austin, Texas; and Jacksonville, Fla., reported recycling more than 30 percent of their household trash, according to a survey this year by Waste & Recycling News, which covers the industry.
“We’re a low performer,’’ said Jim Hunt, chief of the mayor’s office of energy and environment services, though he noted that it is hard to compare cities’ recycling rates, as some include construction debris and exclude large buildings. “We’re one of the greenest cities in the country, but recycling and waste management is still the issue where we fall short. But it’s not for a lack of effort.’’
The city spends about $5 million a year on recycling programs and boosted its recycling rate substantially three years ago when it introduced a single-stream program across Boston, allowing residents to toss all their recycling into one city-provided bin. Boston recoups about half its recycling costs by saving the money it would pay to deposit its trash at landfills, which charge about $80 a ton.
In an effort to boost its recycling rate, the city is rolling out a host of new programs.
This spring, it distributed more than 50,000 specially designed clear plastic bags to be used in neighborhoods from Beacon Hill to East Boston, where homes are too densely packed to use the 64-gallon bins distributed elsewhere. Additional bags are for sale at stores throughout the city.
Officials are also launching a program to introduce single-stream recycling to all public schools and plan to hire a coordinator to promote recycling in public housing projects.
They are seeking to expand recycling in public places by installing 400 solar-powered recycling receptacles, which will wirelessly alert officials when they need to be emptied.
“We’re trying our best to increase recycling, but we can’t force anyone to recycle,’’ said Joanne Massaro, the city’s commissioner of public works. “What we can do is make it easier to do so.’’
A number of factors contribute to Boston’s relatively low recycling rate, officials and recycling advocates said. It could at least partly be due to the city’s relatively high number of immigrants, who may not be familiar with the concept and may not have had it explained in their language. The large population of students also may be a factor.
“Waste reduction isn’t just about the service; it’s about the people,’’ said Edward Hsieh, executive director of MassRecycle, a coalition that represents the recycling industry.
Others suggested that different rules for larger buildings - the city requires landlords of buildings with seven or more units to buy their own barrels or dumpsters and arrange their own recycling contract - could reduce overall participation.
“You need to make sure you have a recycling program that is reaching all residents, regardless of the type of housing stock they’re in,’’ said Samantha MacBride, an adjunct professor of public affairs at Columbia University and author of “Recycling Reconsidered.’’
One of the reasons cities such as San Francisco have a significantly higher recycling rate is because all residents are required to recycle their food scraps.
Boston and other municipalities in the state will be required to launch a similar program in coming years, said Ken Kimmell, commissioner of the the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. New state regulations will require recycling of all residential food waste by the end of the decade.
The state said this year that it will begin banning hospitals, universities, and other big businesses and institutions from discarding food waste in 2014. The scraps will be sent to composting sites or plants that convert waste into energy.
“All of our communities across the state, including Boston, would see significant increases in their recycling rates if they separately collected food waste,’’ said Kimmell, calling the city’s doubling of its recycling rate in the past five years “impressive.’’
Another reason Boston lags behind other cities is that many of them provide financial incentives to recycle. Such “pay as you throw’’ programs, versions of which are used in more than one-third of the state’s municipalities, require residents to pay for the amount of trash they leave on the curb, while their recycling services are free.
Some cities also fine residents or issue warnings if they put recycling in their trash bins.
In San Francisco, residents can be, though rarely are, fined $100 for failing to comply with recyling regulations.
“Some are motivated to help the environment; others are motivated by the money; and others do it because they know they will be fined,’’ said Julie Bryant, coordinator of the zero waste program in San Francisco. “Either way, pay as you throw has been critical to our success.’’
Randi Mail - director of recycling in Cambridge, which recycles about 40 percent of its residential waste - said the city is looking to expand its food scrap program, which she expects would increase Cambridge’s recycling rate to 60 percent.
She said more public education is needed, as about one-quarter of the trash the city collects from residents is filled with cans and bottles that should be recycled.
“Our goal is to follow the same goals of the state’s solid waste master plan, which is a 30 percent reduction of solid waste by 2020, and an 80 percent reduction by 2050,’’ she said. “To do that, we may have to go to a pay-as-you-throw model.’’
On a recent visit to the Casella Waste Systems plant in Charlestown, where Boston recycles about 60 percent of its nearly 200,000 tons of residential waste, city officials said they are unlikely to change to a pay model, which would be hard to make work because of Boston’s many large residential buildings.
A pay model also would probably increase the amount of trash put in recycling bins, they said. The city already has to incinerate about 6 percent of what it collects from recycling bins, items like plastic bags, cooking pots and pans, and Styrofoam.
For now, officials are relying on expanded access, convenience, and new technology at Casella, where optical sensors separate plastics, glass, and metal, and conveyor belts send cardboard and newspaper to be bunched into bales and readied for sale. Cardboard and newspaper make up more than half of all the material.
With nearly 200,000 tons coming from 20 communities, about one-quarter more than a decade ago, Casella officials expect to build a new facility to accommodate the growing stream of material.
“This is a good sign for the future of recycling,’’ said Bob Cappadona, Casella’s vice president of recycling.
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.