BigBellies or Big Bullies?

The city's trash compactors are soiling Greenworks’ plan.

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jul. 27, 2010

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On July 13, the Daily News dedicated its cover to a report by City Controller Alan Butkovitz claiming that “the BigBelly [trash] compactors aren’t as good a deal as city and company officials promised.” “The city,” the paper wrote, “might have been better off keeping its old $100 wire trash baskets.” This launched a flurry of wastebin-related coverage the likes of which Philadelphia had never seen: Fox 29 weighed in on the “Compactor Controversy,” NBC10 decried the “Big Fat Waste of Money,” and the Daily News’ Online Editor Vance Lehmkuhl, tired of soiled palms, hoped for “a groundswell against [the BigBellies’] handles.”

The next day, the Daily News again devoted space to the bins—but, oddly, took the opposite tack. “[Butkovitz’s] ‘report’ is so full of half-truths and unconfirmed assumptions that it corrodes the credibility of the office,” it editorialized. Defending the cans against its previous day’s reporting, the paper said that the machines had saved the city money, boosted recycling, and “[kept] overflow litter to a minimum.”

Despite the contradictions, the compactors, once hailed as harbingers of some Buck Rogers future—They’re solar-powered! They text workers when they’re full! Beep boop bop!—now seemed vaguely malevolent, a trollish waste of funds. It was a far cry from April 2009, when the bins were presented as part of Mayor Nutter’s then-new sustainability plan: “Yesterday we unveiled Greenworks Philadelphia,” Nutter said in a press release. “Today we are proud to announce the largest deployment of solar-powered litter baskets anywhere in America.”

Butkovitz’s report on those baskets, thin though it might have been, was a rare black eye for Greenworks, whose stated goal is to “make Philadelphia the greenest city in America by 2015.” Since its introduction, the program has pushed progress on dozens of fronts, from transportation to energy to construction to jobs. It has reduced the city’s car fleet by 400, weatherized 550 homes and led to the passage of a “cool roof” code. Recycling has increased, and a Kensington “Green Jobs Training Center” opened in March. In a town where big ideas are often whittled to scrap, Greenworks seems poised to make Philadelphia, if not the country’s “greenest” city, certainly one of its most environmentally determined.

Yet in a recession, big ideas seem to be a luxury—and the BigBelly “controversy” shows that environmental hopes often dim when subjected to the vagaries of reality. Often, those vagaries are financial: In April, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis threatened to quit if City Council rejected Greenworks’ goal of 300,000 new trees planted by 2015. Councilman Bill Green, typically skeptical, “questioned the wisdom of spending money on trees when the city’s recreation centers were in poor shape,” according to the Inquirer . In 2009, just 678 trees had been planted, at a cost of $300,000.

While Greenworks has made good progress—by its own reckoning, 72 percent of the way toward its goal—it won’t be around for long. Many of its programs were paid for with state or federal money—one-time funds that can’t be counted on in the future. The retrofitting of buildings was supported by a $25 million Department of Energy grant; many other initiatives—like traffic-light improvement and housing weatherization—were paid for with federal recovery funds.

“I don’t know where fiscal year ’12 or ’13 is going to put us,” says Katherine Gajewski, the city’s director of sustainability, “but we’ve really tried to cut down on our dependencies.” Greenworks was designed with fiscal constraints in mind—yet even if it flourishes, the experiment ends in 2015. Hopefully, according to Gajewski, “after Greenworks has shown its value,” it will have “integrated itself into city government”—with Nutter’s successor picking up the baton.

For an administration marked by shallow pockets and a muted agenda, Greenworks has been a quiet bright spot. The program is ambitious and right; its progress report shows an open diligence historically lacking in City Hall. But it will take much more to make Philadelphia as clean as it should be, to make the term “green” more than a feel-good term. If Nutter’s plan is to succeed through and past 2015, we must believe in it as he does. As far-reaching as Greenworks is, its scope is minute when compared to the cumulative effects of our collective daily decisions. It can push recycling rewards, but it can’t make us recycle. It can bring in hybrid buses, but it can’t make us ride them. It can promote energy efficiency, but it can’t shut off our air conditioners.

To some, environmentalism seems the precinct of liberal ninnies who float through a pine-scented alternate reality. While there might be some truth to the caricature, such side-taking ultimately benefits nobody. At its base, it’s a justification for indefensible irresponsibility, boring and easy. No, tossing an empty cup into one of those BigBellies might not save the world—but for the environmental skeptic, it’s as good a start as any. And besides, each of those cans cost $3,700. We might as well use them. ■

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1. pete said... on Jul 28, 2010 at 11:56AM

“NO pun intended, but the new trash cans kinda stink. I
like the idea of communal recycling bins though. We
need larger ones where one can walk a block and throw
their recyclables into large compartments., perhaps put
them into the ground. The big bellies don't take large pizza
boxes from that awful slice place at 3rd and South so you
end up with a pile of litter around them. If we really want
to make some moves to ,"green", this city then I suggest
immediate martial law flavored with environmentalist
concepts. Cleanse the city of Philadelphia so utterly and so
brutally that finally we have W.Penn's vision of utopia. Put
the idea into the minds of children that fouling the environment
is so bad that they will simply be wired to keep everything
clean. The Earth is more important than any person or nation
and we need global martial law to begin the cleaning of
our environment and all disagreement should be suppressed.

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