How Pittsburghers can improve recycling efforts in 2023
by Lisa Cunningham
February 9, 2023
While recycling has gotten a bad rap in recent years, from rising costs to the merits of plastic recycling in question after statistics showed only 5% of plastic household waste generated in the U.S. was recycled, experts agree the practice is still crucial to preserving the environment for future generations. Recent studies show the United States creates three times the global average of waste, with the average American producing almost five pounds of municipal solid waste per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Although costs of recycling have increased over the last few years and we have seen more pressure to reduce contamination, it’s very important to continue recycling, as the environmental benefits still outweigh the alternatives,” Brittany Prischak, sustainability manager for Allegheny County, tells The Green Voice. “Our landfills will only last so long, and any efforts to reduce the impacts from both extraction processes and waste disposal is vital for cleaner air and water.”
There’s also one other important reason for Pittsburghers to recycle: It’s legally required in the Steel City. All city residents of single-family homes and small apartment buildings must separate recyclable items from their household trash. But that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect system.
In Pittsburgh, environmental groups recently joined elected officials in demanding updates to Pennsylvania’s recycling system, which included calls for establishing better guidelines on what objects can be recycled and enacting a landfill ban for certain materials. One big recent win: In 2022, Pittsburgh City Council unanimously approved a single-use plastic bag ban which will take effect this spring.
“We need to ensure that all common items that we use in our homes and our businesses every day can be recycled easily and effectively,” Ashleigh Deemer, the deputy director of PennEnvironment, told Pittsburgh NPR station WESA.
So how do you know what can be recycled? When should you place recycling on the curb for pickup? And, are you really supposed to just throw everything in one container?
Whether you’re new to the city, or a long-time resident, it’s not always easy to navigate the complicated system. We’re here to help.
“Recycling remains an important daily ritual in all of our lives,” says Sarah Alessio Shea, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council. “It is estimated we make over 35,000 choices per day – choosing to recycle is one of the simplest decisions to make that will reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to local jobs.”
But Prischak adds it’s important to know what your local municipality will accept.
“Our most common recycling mistakes in our facilities stem from wishful recycling, or placing anything you feel should be recyclable into collection containers, rather than just what can be recycled,” she says.
So what can I recycle?
Pittsburgh practices “single-stream recycling,” which means all recyclables are combined and placed into one vehicle.
The city accepts:
- Mixed paper (office paper, newspapers, magazines, junk mail, phone books, etc.) Don’t include shredded paper or any food-covered paper plates.
- Metal containers (empty aluminum, aerosol, and steel cans.) Don’t include lids, but there’s no need to remove the labels.
- Plastic containers (bottles, jugs, and jars that are three gallons or less.) Don’t include plastic bags, yogurt tubs, coffee cup lids, or Keurig cups.
- Glass containers (amber, blue, red, green, and clear bottles and jugs that are three gallons or less.) They won’t accept windows, drinks, or dinnerware. And don’t include broken glass, which can harm workers and damage equipment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Prischak says two of the most common mistakes folks make when recycling are tossing paper towels and non-recyclable plastics into their bins. One reason for the confusion, according to the Pennsylvania Resources Council, is that the little number on your plastic item isn’t a guarantee that it can be recycled. That means you need to make sure you’re following your local municipality’s guidelines. (Pro tip: Leave the clam-shelled packages out of your recycling bin.)
With single-stream recycling, residents should place almost* all of these items in one bin or blue recycling bag. (Which one should you use? Either works, but the city has a plan to distribute over 100,000 blue bins to city residents. If you don’t have one yet, you can use these blue recycling bags found in shops like Home Depot.)
*Wait, almost all?
Yes, you can place your paper, plastic, and glass into one bin. But if you’re recycling cardboard, you’ll need to flatten and bundle it, then place it in a separate box or bin for curbside collection.
When will my recycling get picked up?
The city of Pittsburgh picks up recycling every other week, and the days vary by location. It’s also important to remember that when a holiday falls on or before your collection day, the pickup will be one day later.
All items for pickup must be set on the curb no later than 6 a.m. on the day of collection and no earlier than 6 p.m. on the night before.
Plug in your address and zip code on pgh.st to find your schedule. (They even offer free text messages and email reminders!)
What about yard debris?
Yard debris is picked up curbside only twice a year in the city of Pittsburgh. (You can also plug in your address at pgh.st to find those dates.)
Yard debris accepted curbside twice a year includes:
- Branches (4” or less)
These items must be placed in paper (no plastic!) bags weighing less than 35 pounds, and all branches must be bundled with fiber twine or natural rope in lengths of five feet or less.
Can I just drop my recycling off somewhere?
If you forget to put out your recycling in time for curbside pickup, or just don’t want to wait another week, the city provides a number of drop-off locations.
The following locations will also accept tires and yard debris, but note: only two tires are allowed per day, and it’ll cost you $21 per carload for yard debris. Unlike curbside pickup, they also will accept shredded paper, but they need to be contained inside a clear bag and placed in the appropriate dumpster.
These drop-off centers are open Monday-Friday. The city says they may also offer Saturday hours, but it’s best to call to confirm current drop-off times:
- East End: 6814 Hamilton Ave. 412-665-3609
- Hazelwood: 40 Melanchton St. 412-422-6524
- West End: 1330 Hassler St. 412-937-3054
If you also need to recycle glass bottles, jugs, and jars of three gallons or less, the city recommends the following drop-off locations:
- Strip District (available 24 hours): 3001 Railroad St. (entrance under the 31st Street Bridge) 412-255-2631
- Beltzhoover/Knoxville (Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-1:30 p.m.): 623 Bausman St. (Parking lot of McKinley Skate Park) 412-225-2631
- Construction Junction (Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday, 12-3 p.m.): 214 North Lexington St. 412-243-5025
One exciting development for recycling fans outside of the city: After launching a traveling recycling bin to reach more Western Pa. communities in 2021, the Pennsylvania Resources Council also partnered with several municipalities in 2022 to open permanent glass recycling stations in McCandless, Moon Township, and Bethel Park.
What about hard-to-recycle items?
You’re not allowed to dispose of electronic devices in the regular trash in Pennsylvania, and you can’t place them out for curbside recycling. Instead, take them to an e-waste recycler. In Pittsburgh, you can take them to the Strip District drop-off location (3001 Railroad St.) on Tuesdays from 2-5 p.m. and Thursdays from 3-6 p.m., but registration is required at prc.org/recyclepgh. Material disposal will also cost you 35 cents per pound.
(Or, if you need to get rid of a working computer, consider donating it to Computer Reach, a local nonprofit that aims to provide refurbished equipment to people in need.)
Collections for chemical drop-off at the Strip District drop-off location (3001 Railroad St.) will also take place periodically throughout 2023. The next collection will take place on Sat., March 11, but you can find the full list of dates here: prc.org/HHWPGH. Material disposal fees also vary by object:
- Paints, antifreeze, used oil, other fuels: 25 cents/pound
- Pesticides, poisons, household cleaners, asbestos, acids, aerosols, oxidizers, putty and adhesives, cosmetics: $1.25/pound
- Flammable and reactive solids, quarts of oil: $2.95/pound
- Small propane tanks: $4 each for 20 pounds; $14 each for 20+ pounds
- Fire extinguishers: $14 each
What else can I do to eliminate waste?
“It is just as important to remember that efforts should be made to reduce and reuse waste well before trying to recycle,” says Prischak. At the county level, she says they have “purchasing and sustainability practices in place that reduce the creation of waste and require redistribution of unneeded products and materials to other departments or to the community through auctions.” In Pittsburgh, the city is striving for a Zero Waste Policy by 2030, with a strategic plan to reduce waste in commercial establishments and at events, and by educating residents.
Shea says people should think of items “not as trash, but as a commodity; something that took energy, time, and resources to create.”
“You can choose two options,” she adds. “One, recycle it, keeping that material in ‘play,’ enabling it to be remade in a new product or two, waste it and trash all of the energy and time that was used to create it.”
At home, for example, you can shop smarter and eliminate items like plasticware, start composting, and reuse materials whenever possible. The city recommends buying items in bulk to reduce packaging (a visit to Squirrel Hill’s The Refillery is a must) and donating items you no longer want to people in need (ask what donations are currently being accepted at your closest homeless shelter) instead of tossing them in the trash.
If you’re hosting a party for 250 guests or less, consider renting a Zero Waste Kit, which includes three bins that separate materials into “landfill,” “recycling,” and “compost” categories.
Where can I learn more?
Yes, there is always something more we can do. If you still have questions about recycling practices in Pennsylvania, we recommend signing up for one of the Pennsylvania Resource Council’s upcoming Recycling & Waste Reduction webinars where experts will be available to answer any questions we might have missed.