Don't Call Him Washed Up:
A Day With Philadelphia Recycling Mascot Curby Bucket
I am late to our lunch meeting, but Curby Bucket, the Philadelphia Recycling mascot, doesn’t blink. In fact, he never blinks –- it’s unnerving. As I slide across the table from him at the downtown Cheesecake Factory, an impossibly upbeat Curby doesn’t break eye contact.
“Let’s do this!” He pounds the table with gloved hands. “You’re gonna love this place.”
Despite fresh brows and gleaming teeth, Curby could frankly use a glow up. In a certain light, the pilly blue terry cloth looks closer to lavender. (When I point this out later, he accuses me of being colorblind.) The faded city seal looks worse for wear. And his body is shaped like the city’s outdated original recycling buckets –- round with a handle, rather than today’s 32-gallon rectangles. Curby’s attitude, however, is anything but tired.
“I am PUMPED. You know this is the first time I’ve ever given an interview, right?” he asks. Lately, he’s been thinking a lot about his legacy. “With everything going on in the world right now, I decided it’s time I give back. Let my fans see behind the curtain.”
The notoriously press-shy bucket has been the official mascot of Philadelphia Recycling since the 1990s. How is it possible that after all this time, thirty years of ups and downs in the sustainability space, Curby is still here? “I’m like Dolly Parton,” he tells me earnestly. “I’ve never gone away.”
He orders the Cobb salad — “Chop it up good” — and an Arnold Palmer. During our conversation, he rakes the food around his plate, but never takes a bite. He fumbles with his phone. “Just some crypto stuff, bro,” he says. “You gotta get into crypto.”
Curby’s origin story is the stuff of fairy tales: While working quietly in the mailroom at City Hall, he was tapped by Mayor Goode to take on the mascot role after someone noticed Curby’s physique was strikingly similar to the recently debuted bucket. What was once a source of embarrassment for Curby became his meal ticket. He rose to fame as the It Boy of the decade while encouraging a generation of Philadelphians to recycle. Years later, he continues to appear at block cleanups and school visits. But with the current conversation around recycling’s shortcomings amid the climate crisis, I’m curious if Curby still sees himself as relevant.
Relevant? Am I kidding? Curby laughs out loud. Do I know what kind of circles he travels in? In fact, last night — well, he can’t tell me who he was hanging with, because that would violate an NDA. But believe him, if I knew. If I only knew!
He has requested not to be asked about whether or not pizza boxes are recyclable. In fact, the don’t-talk-about list includes his childhood, composting, and the Tush Push. There’s plenty he is willing to cover, though, and he ping-pongs across a variety of topics as I work my way through a flatbread Margherita: Meditation (he does thirty minutes every morning), hoverboards (He has one! Have I done it? What a rush!), waiting in line, as a concept (“I don’t do it. Ever”), the Phanatic (“Overrated”) and his overall life philosophy (“Every day is a party”).
The bill arrives, and Curby looks at me expectantly. “Box that up,” he directs the server, waving at his untouched salad.
Curby’s personal assistant, Zirconia, appears to aid him down the stairs. She’s in a noisy hot pink cropped belted jacket (Forever 21), wet look black leather trousers (SHEIN), and pristine white Time and Tru stiletto boots. Despite the dim lighting in the Factory, aviators cover her eyes while she pecks at her phone. She dabs at Curby with a lint roller before we debut onto the sidewalk.
Curby sprawls into a swagger as we head down Walnut Street for a deep tissue massage at his favorite spa. “Don’t say where,” he makes me promise. “Then everybody will be going.”
Under the influence of eucalyptus and crystal singing bowls, Curby opens up about the price of fame. “It was a lot, man,” he says, eyes still wide open on the massage table. “We’re talking about recycling in the nineties. Appearances every day, partying every night. I was a wild man,” he laughs. “I got all my ya-yas out . . . I can’t take credit for that. It’s something Obama said. I think he and I have a lot in common.” The masseuse cuts her eyes at me. “If I weren’t so self-aware, I could have destroyed myself.”
Is he referring to Parks and Rec mascot Phred the Panda, “retired” after twenty years amid rumors of diva behavior? Curby demurs. “Look, I hope the guy’s doing okay. But you have to stay grounded. You have to recognize you’re blessed.”
I attempt to steer the conversation toward the challenges faced by the Streets Department, but he veers onto tangents. I let him talk. His can’t-live-without self-care products include Snuggle dryer sheets in lavender and vanilla (“to freshen up”) and OxiClean gel sticks (“for my chompers”). He has always wanted to attend Diner en Blanc, but finds the dress code challenging, if not outright discriminatory. He is a Pisces.
He declines to talk about relationships, but tells me he is forgoing having children of his own. “You can’t have it all,” he sighs. He considers his fans to be his family. What’s his relationship with Sun Ray, the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee mascot? Look, he tells me earnestly, leaning over so far I fear he will roll off the table, it’s not a competition, okay? “We’re all in this together.” Do the kids prefer him to Sun Ray, who creeps them out with his big head? Sure. Is he going to press the issue? That wouldn’t be classy.
“Why should I be?” Sun Ray snapped when asked if he was jealous of Curby. Ethel the Ethics Seal, mascot for the city Board of Ethics, declined to comment. A city employee who refused to give her name was more candid. “Curby? He’s washed up,” she sneered. “Everyone knows Philly recycling is a joke.”
After we leave the spa to head for the Streets Department office, Curby insists on stopping at Starbucks — “You ever been? You HAVE to try the Peppermint Mocha” — and spends ten minutes approaching customers in line, asking if they want a selfie with him. They are confused, but humor him. I stand outside and pet a stranger’s dog while I wait.
When we pass City Hall, Curby pumps his fist against his chest twice and points. “There she is. What a beauty.” He high-fives a group of teenagers as we make our way toward JFK Boulevard. Inside the Municipal Services Building, Zirconia takes us up the back elevator (Curby: “I don’t want anyone to bother us”) to the Streets Department floor. We pass a gray wall of cubicles and reach a storage closet that’s been converted into Curby’s office. He plops down on an exercise ball and plays with a fidget spinner.
The Recycling Office was absorbed into the Streets Department in 1998 and has been bare-bones since, sometimes with only one or two people on staff. The department as a whole is notorious for getting hate from city residents. Does the trash talk, no pun intended, bother him? He looks surprised. I read aloud one Google review: “I think the Streets Department is really sad.”
Curby waves a gloved hand. “I don’t pay attention to haters.” He asks me if I ever heard of Taylor Swift. “There’s this song called Karma: Ask me why so many fade, but I’m still here. I draw positivity to me. Hey, let me give you a tarot reading.” He pulls out a Trash Panda themed deck. The first card I draw is the Fool, illustrated with a raccoon holding a bindle. Curby is thrilled. “That means new beginnings for you!”
I try to guide him back to topic, asking about frustration over recycling bins. The open-top bins provided by the city — if you can get yourself to a sanitation center and if they happen to have any available — are stolen at such an alarming rate that many residents throw their hands up. “People are unclear if we can actually get lids for our bins at the sanitation centers,” I say. “I don’t know; can we?” Curby returns, doing squats while I talk.
I show him a recent Reddit Philadelphia thread. HaggardSlacks78 writes, I’m convinced Philly’s recycling program is responsible for 90% of the trash in the streets. Small open topped bins filled with paper and light plastics. Add a gust of wind and a few extra days for late pickups and half the trash is in the street. EZMoney-1994 adds, I gave up on recycling here and decided the best way to help the environment is to make sure my trash doesn’t end up in the street. How does Curby feel about the fact that his own bucket is overflowing to the point of risk for creating litter?
Unfazed, Curby positions himself into a plank. “I’m not going to hang myself on my own words. Want some merch?” He gestures to a pile on the floor and urges me to take a t-shirt with his face on it.
I press further. Only 8 to 13 percent of Philly recycling ever even makes it to the stage where it might get recycled. Why aren’t we listening to Circular Philadelphia, who point out that Philly’s recycling system is broken and we need to shift focus to reducing waste and supporting a circular economy? Why did the city dissolve the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet? What’s the response to the proposed mayoral agenda from Waste Free Philly, developed by a coalition including Clean Water Action and the Clean Air Council?
“You worry too much,” Curby shakes his head. “Here, try this aromatherapy roll-on. It’s lemongrass. Good, right?”
It is indeed good. Zirconia reminds us it’s time to head to our next stop, a visit to Curby’s place at the Port Richmond Sanitation Center. She stays behind to handle some invoices while Curby and I hitch a ride on the back of a trash truck.
“What about the fact that plastics recycling is essentially a lie?” I yell over the roar of traffic. “Oil companies have always known most plastics can’t be recycled. They created recycling publicity campaigns to trick people into thinking plastic pollution wouldn’t be a problem. Now our dirty plastics are shipped to countries in Southeast Asia, clogging their waterways and polluting their air. Do you feel you’ve been complicit in this?”
“I can’t hear you,” Curby yells back.
At the sanitation center, we wave to the staff at the front, then tour the trucks parked around the perimeter. I peer into the abyss of a truck. Apparently one bad item can contaminate a whole batch of recycling; most of the stuff at the sorting facilities is diverted into trash. Curby is gesturing eagerly for me to follow him behind a corrugated metal wall.
“Welcome to my casa,” Curby says proudly. “I just had the beer fridge put in,” he adds, running a hand over a spattered Kenmore.
Curby insists on heating up leftover scrambled eggs for me. “The secret is to add a little milk.” He fancies himself an amateur cook: “If I weren’t in the mascot game, I’d be running a restaurant empire, for sure. Like Guy Fieri, but more upscale.” He watches eagerly while I take a bite. “Aren’t those eggs, like, blowing your MIND?”
I balance on a Wawa crate and survey the Italian-restaurant-style walls: framed signed photos of Curby with at least four different mayors, Dr. J, Sylvester Stallone. Perching on a scarred pleather forest green armchair, Curby lights up a cherry vanilla Black ‘n’ Mild and tunes a transistor radio to WRTI smooth jazz. To unwind, he likes to dump out a puzzle box and play with the pieces. “I don’t put it together. I just hold them.”
Does Curby recognize how much worse the problem has gotten since China passed restrictions in 2018, refusing to accept any more waste materials from abroad? Philly’s challenges surely reflect the rest of the nation, where waste back-ups reveal government under-investment in recycling systems and show us recycling isn’t as environmentally friendly as we thought. Is he familiar with the lawsuit New York State is bringing against PepsiCo over single use plastic?
He’s listening, passing puzzle pieces through his fingers like water. I pose the hard question. “Do you have a responsibility to be honest about the fact that plastics production and recycling needs to be regulated by the government instead of pushing the responsibility to the consumer who realistically has limited choice?”
He laughs. “You know, if I felt like it, I could kill this piece,” he says. “Do you know what Brando said about his interview with Truman Capote? He said ‘my soul is a private place.’ I vibe with that.” He shimmies back and forth, scatting to the jazz in the background.
But he mentioned his legacy earlier. What about his legacy? “They used you, Curby,” I say quietly. “Doesn’t that make you feel some type of way?”
Curby pauses and, finally, turns introspective. He looks away and stares into the middle distance. A full twenty seconds pass. “I do wish sometimes,” he says slowly, “that my bucket wasn’t quite so full.”
“Do you mean that literally?” I whisper.
He turns toward me. The smile is still there, but the energy in the room has changed. Curby points to the door. The interview is over.
On my walk home, I pass a scarred blue recycling bin whose contents have already been contaminated with crushed beverage cups and bags of dog poop. I’m still holding the t-shirt from Curby. I drop it in.