PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - Philadelphia residents are learning that it pays to recycle.
The City of Brotherly Love launched what officials said on Thursday was America's largest program to give residents a financial incentive to recycle paper, plastic, glass and aluminum.
Residents can earn points for the amount of recyclables collected in trucks that have special sensors to weigh the material. Points are accumulated by each neighborhood and divided equally among participating households whose members can exchange the points for coupons and gift certificates at local businesses.
Officials said giving people an incentive to recycle will significantly increase the proportion of waste that does not go into a landfill and save the city millions of dollars in landfill fees.
"It's an initiative to put real money into the hands of Philadelphians when they really need it," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter at a ceremony to launch the program.
Philadelphia Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson said the city pays $65 a ton to dispose of trash in a landfill, and just 33 cents a ton for recycled material. When the economy recovers, the city can expect to get paid for recyclable material, as it did before the recession drove down the price of many recyclables.
The Recycling Rewards program will begin in North Philadelphia in February and be implemented throughout the city by July when all of Philadelphia's 1.5 million people will have access to it.
The program has been funded by $708,000 in federal stimulus money which has paid for recycling boxes equipped with bar codes and truck-mounted scanners that record when a box is tipped into the back of the truck.
In the last two years Philadelphia has doubled its recycling rate to 15 percent -- about equal to other major U.S. cities -- by introducing single-stream recycling in which all materials are placed in the same container for collection, rather than requiring householders to separate paper, plastic and other materials.
With the increase in recycling, the city saved $5.6 million in landfill costs in the 12 months to September. About 87,000 tons of residential waste was recycled during that period.
With the new program, Philadelphia hopes to reach a 20 percent recycling rate by 2011 and 25 percent by 2015, said Andrew Stober, the city's director of strategic initiatives.
The highest U.S. rates tend to be around 25 percent, while a total of 40 percent of household waste is typically recyclable, he said.
The program is being run by RecycleBank, a Philadelphia-based company that operates recycling incentive programs in 20 states plus the United Kingdom.
RecycleBank chief executive Ron Gonen said incentive programs typically double previous recycling rates. On average, participating households earn points worth $250 a year.
The can cash in the pointes at a range of local businesses, including Shopright, Whole Foods and Petco.com. In Philadelphia, the points can also be exchanged for tickets to the 76ers basketball team.
The sharp increases seen in current U.S. incentive programs are partly a reflection of existing recycling rates that are low by international standards, according to Gonen.
The incentive program is part of the city's Greenworks initiative, a wide-ranging environmental program that aims to make Philadelphia "the greenest city in America."