One of the top consumer myths impacting the recycling industry today is that plastic bags are recyclable at material recovery facilities (MRFs). After conducting a study earlier this year, Houston-based Waste Management found it spends 140,000 hours per year removing plastic bags and “tanglers,” including Christmas lights, garden hoses and extension cords, from screens at its facilities.
“There’s definitely a lot of work that goes into keeping that material out of the system,” says Brent Bell, president of Waste Management Recycle America at Waste Management. “We try to educate consumers this is time we can spend recycling more tons per year.”
In 2014, Waste Management launched the Recycle Often. Recycle Right. campaign to increase recycling and improve the quality of materials through a comprehensive education program. The online portal has been a “useful campaign.” The website relays simple messages and reminders to consumers, including “keep loose plastic bags and bagged recyclables out of my recycling” and “recycle all my empty bottles, cans, paper and cardboard.”
“We get a lot of feedback from our customers that recycling is confusing,” Bell says. “For example, one town in Ohio takes glass and the other doesn’t, but both go to our MRF. Because there’s such variation of acceptable materials in the recycling stream today, we’ve tried to simplify and focus on items every program in the U.S. takes—cardboard, paper, bottles and cans.”
Since launching the education program, Waste Management reduced its contamination rate from 25 percent to 19 percent in 2019.
“It has gotten better with education, but it’s something you’ve got to continually push on,” Bell says.
Waste Management also has success with supporting local initiatives and programs in different parts of the country. In the Northwest, the company hires recycling education and outreach interns that go from door to door to educate residents. Madeline Schroeder, a bilingual intern from Waste Management’s 2018 Recycle Corps program, was able to educate Spanish-speaking residents in Richmond, Washington, and now works in the recycling industry. In other parts of the country, Waste Management has launched tagging programs to reduce contamination at the curb.
“We have local programs that we develop and pilot to see if they work well and then on a national level, we’ll roll it out,” Bell says. “Some of our better ideas come from different parts of the country. We encourage that type of involvement.”
He adds, “We find that addressing it on a local level is what really helps and drives progress.”
Waste Management joined industry stakeholders in signing the America Recycles Day Pledge at last year’s America Recycles Day Summit in Washington. Led by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the stakeholders will meet to discuss their progress over the last year at the 2019 America Recycles Summit on America Recycles Day, Nov. 15.
“Last year, major brand owners and environmental service providers, including Waste Management, signed a pledge to create a strong recycling infrastructure here in the U.S.,” Bell says. “We’re meeting again this Friday to give an update on our progress and efforts we’ve made individually as companies and how we worked together over the past year to support the industry.”
Of America Recycles Day, Bell says, the initiative is “a reminder of the importance of recycling and making a sustainable environment.”