As Buffalo prepares to launch the biggest changes in recycling since the program began 21 years ago, there is debate about whether the city should start imposing fines on people who refuse to participate.
Residents are recycling only 6.5 percent of all household waste -- about one-fifth of the national average, according to data the city released this month.
This summer, Buffalo will switch from small blue recycling bins to 65-gallon totes, then cut weekly collections to every two weeks. People will be able to toss more types of waste into their new totes as the city moves to "single-stream" recycling.
But officials admit they're worried that the recycling rate might remain stuck at embarrassing levels. Over the past two decades, recycling rates have hovered between 6 percent and 14 percent.
While an ambitious education effort is planned, Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak is raising a question that surfaces every few years: Should the city begin enforcing a law that requires property owners to recycle?
Stepniak made it clear that he hopes the upcoming awareness blitz and ongoing educational efforts will do the trick. He also raised an idea that has been bandied about for years -- the possibility of offering some type of incentives to homes to aggressively recycle.
But the commissioner publicly stated this week that it might be time to take a firmer approach.
"Recycling has to be mandated," Stepniak said. "You have to insist that people recycle. It's in the City Charter. There should be some ramifications if you don't [recycle]."
The city could impose fines that range from $25 to $250 for violations of the recycling ordinance. Council President David A. Franczyk agreed that it might be time to start enforcing the law.
"Summonses are not out of the question," Franczyk said. "Some people are just lazy, and that's pitiful."
North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. said fines should be imposed only after the city spearheads a high-profile awareness effort to encourage people to recycle. One component of the city's new contract with its private recycling contractor is the hiring of a full-time coordinator to oversee the public outreach. The city also will try to forge closer ties with schools to promote recycling.
By some estimates, Buffalo could save more than $500,000 a year in landfill fees and other expenses if it could substantially increase household recycling. Golombek said the city must do a better job of "selling" the benefits of recycling to property owners.
While city lawmakers agree that boosting recycling rates is important, some don't support taking a hard-line stance.
"These are austere times," said Masten representative Demone A. Smith. "We should hold off on imposing any new fines on people. That should be the last resort."
Meanwhile, Stepniak urged caution in comparing Buffalo's recycling rate with rates in other communities. He said some municipalities include leaves and even some types of construction debris, boosting their recycling rates. Buffalo's 6.5 percent household recycling rate, for example, does not include yard waste.