Beyond the Blue Bin

Rethinking recycling for a saner, more sustainable world. 

Earth Day may be over, but its spirit can live on in new habits for healthier living all year long.

Samantha Wittchen, co-director of Circular Philadelphia, is all about the circular economy — a system where all the materials needed to make new products come from old products instead of throwing things away and extracting more resources.

Local science contributor Anne Hylden sat down with Samantha to chat about how Philly does recycling differently, and how we can learn to keep that Earth Day vibe alive every day. (This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)

When a recycling truck picks up material from our blue bins, where does it go?

It goes to the Material Recovery Facility, also known as a MRF [pronounced “murf”], in the Northeast area of Philadelphia, which is owned by Waste Management. The mixed recycling goes through a number of sorting processes. In the end, they’ll bale the materials into some form that can easily be shipped all around the country to whomever their buyer is.

And where are the buyers?

Mostly, cardboard and mixed paper find homes domestically. Aluminum can find a home pretty easily. There are a few more plastics recycling plants that have come online since China said they’re not taking our stuff anymore [in 2018], so the infrastructure is getting built up more and more in the US.

But if we can take some of these materials and pull them off before they get to the “blue bin” and keep them here locally with processors in the Philadelphia region, it’s more likely that those materials will get turned back into something of higher value because they’re less likely to be contaminated.

Does Circular Philadelphia work with companies that do that?

Yes. Glass, for example, is a material that you can put it in your blue bin, but it’s not going to get recycled because it frequently gets broken. Broken glass that’s mixed up with other stuff has pretty much no use.

One of our members, Bottle Underground, takes glass from residents and businesses. And they work with people looking for glass and give them the actual jars for reuse. What they can’t reuse, they will melt down and turn into other kinds of things like drinking glasses or light fixtures.

They’ve also been working on a project with a local landscape architecture firm, OLIN, to take some of that glass and turn it back into sand for soil amendments and infrastructure projects. And that’s right here in Philly.

What advice do you have for Philadelphians who care about recycling?

Don’t give up, I think, is number one. When our waste was piling up at the beginning of the pandemic, the city just started sending around one truck, and everything went in it. There is a level of trust that has been destroyed around recycling that the Parker administration is going to have to work very hard to restore.

I think it’s important for people to understand that when things do go through the recycling process, they find markets. Your paper, cardboard, aluminum, steel cans, number one and two plastics, and to a certain extent, five — those things will find a way back into the stream and get recycled.

The second thing is for people who have the means and the desire; I think it’s worthwhile to look into some of these other organizations like Bottle Underground for glass, PAR Recycle Works for electronics, and Rabbit Recycling, which provides a unique and helpful household service.

For a fee, they’ll take all the things that would normally go in your blue bin, plus all the weird things you don’t know what to do with it, like your plastic films. They’ll take Styrofoam, they’ll take batteries, they’ll take electronics. And then they work with various vendors that will take this stuff, turn it into other things, and dispose of it properly.

The third thing is that I want residents to keep the pressure on the city. I want them to call up their council person, saying, hey, you need to hold accountable the people in charge of the new Clean and Green cabinet and make sure they’re doing what they’re mandated to do, which is reducing illegal dumping and increasing the recycling rate. As a resident, you have a right to demand that of your council people.

And then of course, make sure that what you do put in your bin is clean and not a giant mess. Make it nice for your sanitation workers; they’re doing a tough job. Making it easier for them makes it more likely that the materials get where they need to go.

ED NOTE: Local groups like Philly Climate Works and the League of Conservation Voters work to hold polluters accountable and demand better legislation to fight back against fossil fuel lobbyists behind $20 billion in subsidies that gas and oil companies enjoy in the US. 

What do you think? Please leave your questions and comments below, or email Anne at

Circular Philadelphia brings together individuals, businesses, manufacturers, institutions, local government, and policymakers to lead the shift to a circular economy in our region. Visit for a handy directory of local businesses and organizations offering products and services for Zero Waste living. Reduce, reuse, and recycle within our communities, to generate a circular, sustainable economy. Follow @circularPHL on IG, X, and FB. ♻️

About Anne Hylden 4 Articles
Anne Hylden holds an M.S. in Inorganic Chemistry and is pursuing an M.A. in Science Writing. She taught math and chemistry for twelve years before turning to freelance writing. When she's not thinking about science, she enjoys drinking tea, walking her dog around Northwest Philly, and laughing with her partner Bob.

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