In January 2019, Grid ran a cover that read “Dumpster Fire.” The article, entitled “A Big Waste,” was about the fact that Philadelphia was burning 50% of its recyclables. Keep in mind this was well before the pandemic, so there were no excuses of extraordinary volume or of a depleted workforce. What the article revealed was that the recycling department was chronically neglected and understaffed, and that the Streets Department, tasked with overseeing recycling, was essentially asleep at the wheel as a critical contract expired.
The article was written by Samantha Wittchen, who had for years written a recycling column in Grid, and one of the people quoted in the story was Nic Esposito, the then-head of the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, which was subsequently and tellingly, eliminated during the pandemic.
At the time it was published, Nic was not pleased with the story. Yes, the city was ill-prepared and understaffed, he said, but it’s easy to take shots at the city government when it has been tasked with an impossible job. He felt that Grid missed an opportunity to talk about the bigger picture, about how systemic changes are necessary to stem the tide of single-use containers.
Whatever feathers were ruffled by the article have long since been smoothed over. Nic is a frequent and vocal critic of the Kenney administration, especially regarding how waste is (mis)managed. And, this month, Nic and Samantha, with Julie Hancher of Green Philly, launched Circular Philadelphia, a nonprofit that will advocate on behalf of circular businesses to help them compete with those who rely on the landfill and municipal recycling.
I don’t mean to demonize recycling, which has brought the concept of sustainability to the mainstream, but it shouldn’t be our primary response to the inescapable glut of packaging. Every time something is thrown into the trash, it’s a failure of design and imagination. The same is true for recycling, no matter how virtuous we feel lugging our blue bins to the curb.
That’s what makes me so excited about our cover story about The Rounds. This company is attacking the problem of excessive packaging at the source by offering products in reusable and returnable containers. I’ve been using their service for a few weeks now, and I love it. I’m buying almonds, cashews, oatmeal and quinoa, as well as hand soap and dish detergent. When I finish with any of the products, I just put the container in their cloth bag. Every week they take the cloth bag with the empties and bring a new bag with filled containers. Brilliant!
There are still so many things that I would like to receive without single-use packaging—yogurt and peanut butter come to mind as family staples that fill our recycling bin—but maybe that will come soon. In the meantime, I am delighted to see the issue of packaging addressed in such a creative way. It is, one hopes, a harbinger of things to come.