Until very recently Philadelphians recycled a dismal five-percent of their trash. The city was once a leader in recycling - having passed the first mandatory curbside recycling law in the 1980s. But it wasn't until a few years ago that city officials got aggressive in trying to make that law matter - and their approach has worked. WHYY's Kerry Grens reports on what it took to quadruple Philadelphia's recycling rate in just four years.

Bright blue recycling bins neatly line 45th Street on Philadelphia's west side. William Taylor, a recycling truck driver and a reverend, treats his routes kind of like a recycling ministry. He does whatever he can to get people on board.

"This is one of the better neighborhoods for recycling," Taylor says. "They have more of a clue of what's supposed to be in the bucket. Some other neighborhoods, they don't have a clue."

It's hard to blame Philadelphians for being confused. It used to be that people had to separate their recyclables: cans in one bucket, glass in another, and so on. A few years ago, the city rolled out "single stream" recycling: just one big blue bin for all recyclables.

"People just didn't know what was recyclable, says Carlton Williams, the deputy commissioner of the Streets Department. "People said, 'I'm confused, I'm not going to figure it out anymore, I'll just throw it in the trash.'"

Williams says that attitude allowed recycling rates to stagnate for two decades. But as the green movement took hold, and the city realized it could actually earn money by selling its recyclable materials, the push was on.

Single stream came first. Then the city started picking up recycling each week, instead of every two weeks. It added plastics and cardboard to the list of what goes into the blue bin. And it spent millions of dollars on trucks, bins, advertising and education.

Philadelphia had a good incentive: not only can it earn money selling recyclables, Williams says, it saves money on high tipping fees for hauling rubbish to landfills or incinerators.

"We're at an all time high of $65 a ton for recycling for the city of Philadelphia. That is phenomenal. We're paying $66.50 a ton when we're throwing things away as trash," says Williams.

To keep garbage costs in check, and to cash in by collecting more recycled material, the city also sent dozens of city workers out roaming the streets. That's where Kerry Withers, a SWEEP officer, comes in.

"Sweep stands for Streets Walkways Education and Enforcement Program," says Withers.

In other words, he's the trash police.

"If we see most of the people have blue bins around here what we'll look for somebody who doesn't have one and that prompts us to check if they're recycling or not," says Withers as he snaps on blue latex gloves and walks up to a house, its front yard groomed with flower beds. "Like right here, you have your soda, your plastics, soda bottle, inside of the trash."

This time Withers gives the resident a warning. But he regularly writes $50 tickets for people who don't recycle. Some Philadelphia residents have paid thousands of dollars in trash and recycling tickets, including property owner Jacquie Stevens.

"Otherwise known as Madame Trash," says Stevens. "That's how I feel. I'm a landlord in the city of Philadelphia, regretfully."

Stevens owns 13 properties, which means she's responsible for all the recycling misdeeds of those 13 properties. She says digging through her tenants' trash is a violation of their privacy.

"I put up a no trespassing sign. Doesn't make any difference to them," Stevens says. "They're on the hunt for money. Like a gambler went mad, you know?"

Since January of 2010, Philadelphia has issued about 24,000 tickets. Stevens says it would be more fair to ticket the residents, instead of the landlord.

Though Philadelphia's approach to getting people to recycle might anger some, it clearly has worked. Now Philadelphians recycle nearly 20 percent of their trash. Deputy Commissioner Williams pulls out maps of the city, illustrating the dramatic change by some neighborhoods, such as in North Philadelphia.

"These numbers now show that when they were one percent, look at them now. They're at 12, nine, eight, 10 ... We would have been happy to be at these numbers city-wide four years ago. Now it's our lowest performing numbers in the city," says Williams.

Other neighborhoods - South Philly, Chestnut Hill, and parts of the Northeast - are solidly at 25 percent or above.

Between the money not spent in landfill fees and the money earned selling recycled materials, the city is saving about one million dollars a month. Hoping to push those numbers even higher, the Streets Department has now dangled a carrot in front of residents, a coupon rewards program for anyone who recycles.

"Philadelphia was the first major large city to sign on to the program city-wide," says Denise Diorio McVeigh, the Philadelphia program manager for Recycle Bank, the company that runs the rewards program.

Residents sign up and get a barcoded sticker for their recycling bin. People get discounts for stores or products based on how man tons their neighborhood recycles. 141,000 households have signed up.

While recycling rates have continued to climb, it's unclear how much of the credit goes to the rewards program. The Streets Department wants to divert 35 percent of Philadelphia's trash from landfills.

Education will continue to be part of the city's efforts.  Recycling truck driver William Taylor says many residents need remedial recycling lessons. "We find wood in the buckets. Clothing. Sneakers. ... Hair! People think their hair's recyclable. They throw it in, we dump it, we say, what is that? It's hair! We take it out, put it back in the bucket. What are you going to do?"


In partnership with KQED's QUEST