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The Unclean Truth: How Five Cities Stack Up On Recycling

From coffee grounds to empty milk cartons, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how and where to recycle. In many cities, gone are the days of simply leaving trash on the curb. Instead, the emphasis is on recycling — and more importantly, how to recycle and what can be recycled under a particular city's program. However, not all recycling programs are created equal.

So, let's get dirty with how five different cities across the U.S. deal with recycling. When determining how to rank cities, the national recycling rate was used as a baseline for comparison, with grades reflecting how much a city exceeded (or missed) the average. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the recycling rate nationwide was 34.1 percent in 2010, with 85.1 million tons of materials recycled. The recycling rate is on an upward trend, improving from 31.6 percent and 79.9 million tons of materials recycled in 2005.

Other studies were used as well, including the Smarter Cities project by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and The Green City Index, a research project conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Siemens. Individual city recycling program websites were also examined. How did these five cities stack up? Check out the following list to find out.

San Francisco, California: The Golden Gate City can teach a course or two about recycling. The city is the first in the nation to mandate that all residents, businesses (including restaurants) and multidwelling units separate and put their recycling, compostable materials and trash in the appropriate pick-up containers. Don't feel like recycling? Those who refuse to recycle might receive fines, which the Green City Index credits for the city's strong recycling program. San Francisco also provides composting bins for citizens to place their kitchen scraps and gives information on how to compost at home. San Francisco Department of the Environment also offers tips for consumers on how to prevent waste, including whom to contact to stop junk mail, how to properly dispose of large electronics like television sets and where to donate unused items. The city's goal is to achieve what it calls "Zero Waste" by 2020, where nothing will be diverted to the landfill or incineration. San Francisco is already on its way to meeting that benchmark; it was announced in October that the city had achieved a recycling rate of 80 percent, well above the national average. [Grade: A+]

Portland, Oregon: For citizens in the Rose City, taking care of garbage doesn't have to be stinky. In Portland, which the NRDC considers among the top recyclers in the nation, residents have separate containers to sort their trash, recycling and compostable materials. The city's standard garbage pick-up service is every other week, and those who truly want to use less garbage can have their garbage picked up every four weeks. In addition, the city's Fix-It Fairs help residents learn how to repair broken items instead of just tossing them in the garbage. In 2011, the Portland metropolitan area had a recycling rate of 59.3 percent, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Recycling doesn't just happen at home, either. Portland's Recycle at Work program requires local businesses to recycle all types of paper and certain containers, including plastic bottles, aluminum cans and glass. [Grade: A]

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Under Mayor Michael Nutter's guidance, Philadelphia has ramped up its recycling. According to the Green City Index, Philadelphia's recycling rate now stands at 37 percent, just over the national average. To encourage recycling, the city has installed recycling bins downtown and offers Philadelphia Recycling Rewards, which lets residents receive points for coupons for brand-name items and donations to charities for recycling. [Grade: B+]

San Antonio, Texas: Some cities are ramping up their recycling programs, and San Antonio is no exception. With an 18 percent recycling rate reported in January 2010 and reaching a rate of 27 percent earlier this year, this city has the potential to be a game-changer. San Antonio's goal is to achieve a residential recycling rate of 60 percent by 2020, and it is upping the ante to reach that goal. San Antonio's Solid Waste Management website helps residents find out how to properly dispose of recyclable containers and hazardous materials. To encourage residents to recycle — and perhaps brag a little — the city is allowing residents who feel they are super recyclers to nominate themselves for the Carter Star Award. In 2010, the city passed an ordinance requiring multi-family properties to provide recycling services for residents, and its website offers tips on how to enact these changes. [Grade: C+]

Providence, Rhode Island: Clocking in with a recycling rate of 14.6 percent reported in fiscal year 2011, Providence has nowhere to go but up. Starting in October, all households in Providence received new gray trash cans and the current green cans are now used for recycling. The city also provided residents with a list of acceptable materials to recycle. To encourage recycling, Providence residents must set out both the trash and recycling barrels, or else risk not having their other trash picked up. The city aims to increase its recycling rate to 25 percent in 2013. To help residents properly dispose of certain items, the Department of Public Works has tips on its website. [Grade: C]

Megan Horst-Hatch is a mother, runner, baker, gardener, knitter, and other words that end in "-er." She loves nothing more than a great cupcake, and writes at I'm a Trader Joe's Fan. Her work can be found at

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