Phila. recycling chief steps down

Posted: September 06, 2007

In what recycling advocates say is further proof that Philadelphia is incapable of building a vibrant recycling program, yet another in a string of recycling coordinators has abruptly left the job.

After only 18 months on the job, Joan Hicken sent a sarcastic note to associates Friday, saying: "It's been a real . . . pleasure." An autoreply to e-mails sent to her city in-box reads: "I will be out of the office starting 08/31/2007 and will not return until 12/31/2007. Actually, I won't be returning!"

Despite estimates that it would save the city as much as $21.4 million in trash-disposal costs, Philadelphia has one of the worst residential recycling rates among major cities - 7.3 percent.

Carlton Williams, deputy commissioner of the Streets Department, said yesterday that Hicken had left the city on good terms and with great reluctance.

"Joan saw another opportunity that she wanted to take. It was a very difficult decision, but she wanted to fulfill her career goals elsewhere," he said.

He said that he was "saddened to see her go," and that both Hicken and the department were pleased with her work here.

Williams said Hicken was moving to Florida, but he did not know to which city or what job. He said he did not have contact information for her.

The Inquirer's attempts to reach Hicken were unsuccessful.

The city's first recycling coordinator, Maurice Sampson 2d, noted with chagrin what seems like a revolving door for recycling coordinators - five in two decades.

"I was dismissed. Al Dezzi was ignored. Joan Batory was invisible. David Robinson was indicted," he said, ticking them off chronologically. "Are we going to shoot the next one? What is the sequence of events here?"

Hicken was hired in March 2006 from a similar job in Glendale, Ariz. There, she had introduced single-stream recycling, considered more user-friendly because all recyclables can be put into one bin instead of separate containers.

Now, however, recycling advocates see Hicken's tenure as a case of misalignment - a person with expertise and enthusiasm brought into a department whose leaders did not believe recycling on a broad scale was either doable or, perhaps as a consequence, a priority.

"I like to say that our trash system is the most modern you could have - in 1975," said Sampson, now head of a Philadelphia company, Niche Waste Reduction and Recycling Systems Inc.

Streets Commissioner Clarena I.W. Tolson said she expected to announce within weeks an expansion of single-stream recycling - paired with weekly pickup instead of every other week, as it is now - to another section of the city.

"Our goal is to have single-stream throughout the entire city, and we're moving on that course," she said.

She said comments about Hicken's frustration were "cheap shots and made out of ignorance."

Others said that almost from the beginning, Hicken had been frustrated.

Sampson met with her shortly after she started, when "she was going through the kind of shock professionals go through when they come to Philly."

Nine weeks into the job, she still had no city e-mail address.

Sampson said she was struggling "to understand her job, why it was so hard, and why she couldn't be allowed to be a professional. . . . She talked about leaving."

Evan Belser, now a law student but formerly a recycling advocate with Clean Water Action, also recalled that Hicken felt hamstrung.

She succeeded in expanding single-stream recycling here, "but I think she knows very well she could have taken that step a lot further," Belser said. "I think one of her bigger frustrations, which I gathered from lots of meetings, is that there is no overriding, well-organized goal for the city. No action plan."

Williams said that under Hicken, the city expanded single-stream recycling to 200,000 homes. As a result, recycling rates increased from 8 percent to 11 percent in the Northeast, from 3 percent to 5 or 6 percent in the Southwest.

Christine Knapp, with Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, sees Hicken's exit as a lost opportunity. "She could have been valued. She was obviously a skilled person," Knapp said.

She said that "almost nothing about the decisions that have been made in the department the last couple years has made sense. . . . There's a lot of stop and go, smoke and mirrors, without a whole lot of accountability."

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown plans to once again hold a hearing about the city's recycling rate. "We made it plain we would be anxious to hear about progress," she said. "The reality is in the numbers."

Both mayoral candidates also have said progress is important and doable. "When the mayor lets it be known this is something he is interested in, I think a lot can be done," Republican nominee Al Taubenberger said.

Democratic nominee Michael Nutter echoed those sentiments.

"Quite frankly," he said, "it has been a complete mystery to me over the years as to why we have not been able to improve our recycling rates and give Philadelphia the premier recycling program that they have demanded for many years."

Recycling advocates wonder what's next. "It's a concern that the city can't seem to hold someone in that position," said Emily Linn, the Clean Air Council's recycling advocate.

Scott McGrath, who worked with Hicken as the department's environmental planner and head of the household hazardous-waste program, has been named the interim coordinator.

Even under a new administration, the city could well have a tough time finding a replacement for Hicken.

"We can't just keep hiring qualified professionals into a position that seems to squash them," Belser said.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.

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