Figuring out multifamily recycling
San Marcos, Texas, conducts recycling audit
San Marcos

Figuring out multifamily recycling

Orlando, Florida, and San Marcos, Texas, are among several cities that are rolling out multifamily recycling ordinances and pilot projects in 2020.

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February 12, 2020

More than 30 percent of people in the United States live in multifamily properties. In larger cities, like Orlando, Florida, that percentage increases to about 60 percent, according to The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia. In many cases, people living in apartments don’t have access to recycling.

At the same time, cities that have announced waste reduction or zero waste goals are passing commercial and multifamily recycling ordinances to help achieve their targets.

To help move multifamily recycling forward, The Recycling Partnership is providing grants to several multifamily recycling projects in 2020.

“It’s our goal to give everyone access to recycling,” says Craig Wittig, director of community programs for The Recycling Partnership. “For us to grant access to everyone, we have to get involved with multifamily.”

He adds, “If you have zero waste goals or 60 to 80 percent waste reduction goals, you’re not going to hit those numbers unless you focus on that sector.”

Paving the way

To help achieve the city’s zero waste by 2040 goal, Orlando passed a commercial and multifamily recycling ordinance in April 2019.

Beginning April 1 of this year, the first phase of the ordinance will require large multifamily properties of at least 250 units and commercial properties of at least 200,000 square feet to provide a recycling container, implement a program and submit a plan to the city for verification. By April 1, 2021, properties with 74 units or more and commercial buildings of 100,000 to 199,000 square feet will have to comply with the ordinance. By April 1, 2023, small residences of fewer than 74 units and all commercial buildings also must comply.

“This was a policy decision to create a strategy to address our zero waste goals. Commercial and multifamily properties are a huge customer of the city,” says Joseph England, sustainability project manager at Orlando Solid Waste Management Division. “We also got a lot of pressure from our residents leading up to this policy decision that didn’t have that opportunity to recycle.”

Before passing the ordinance, Orlando took two years to gather input and concerns from stakeholders, including commercial and multifamily property owners, apartment associations, recyclers and haulers and municipalities. From a hauler’s perspective, England says, “Being able to have that potential business was something that was pretty intriguing for our private haulers.” Orlando competes with about 20 other haulers to provide waste and recycling services in the city, he adds.

Before implementing the first phase of the ordinance, Orlando identified about 130 properties that need to come into compliance by April. The city sent out flyers to the properties and is planning a workshop for properties that still need help with establishing a recycling program. About 50 percent of the properties didn’t have recycling programs in place before the ordinance, England says.

Last year, Orlando began using free tools and resources offered by The Recycling Partnership, including educational materials and labels for recycling bins. When the recycling ordinance passed, the two formed a more “formal partnership,” England says, and the city was able to obtain a grant.

In addition, Orlando has doubled its sustainability and educational staff to concentrate on door-to-door education, including working with municipalities on education campaigns in high contamination areas. Because of the increased outreach and education efforts, contamination wasn’t a major concern going into the implementation process, England says. The city was more looking for support and resources to help with implementing the ordinance.

Part of the grant from The Recycling Partnership will pay for a new full-time position within the solid waste department. The employee is focusing specifically on multifamily recycling and implementing the ordinance, England says. In addition, the grant will pay to provide small recycling bins to the apartments in certain multifamily properties. The city, which is the service provider at the properties, will then work with a third-party consultant to collect data from the bins to measure contamination and to “see how much recycling is available” per unit, Wittig says.

“We think there’s about 600 pounds of recycling available on average per unit. We’re still developing the 600 number, so we’re doing a capture rate study,” he adds.

Trial and error

The Recycling Partnership also is working on a multifamily pilot project in San Marcos, Texas. San Marcos passed an ordinance in 2010 that requires all multifamily properties to provide recycling. Amy Kirwin, community enhancement initiatives manager in San Marcos, describes the city, which is home to Texas State University, as a college town with a population of about 40,000 students.

The city contracts with Austin, Texas-based Texas Disposal Systems to provide pickup services to 183 properties or 15,000 apartments total. Under the ordinance, each of the properties provide a large recycling container adjacent to the waste dumpsters. The large recycling containers attract contamination, Kirwin says, including appliances, tires and mattresses.

To reduce contamination, Kirwin and her team began a six-week Bin It to Win It recycling competition, which engages properties on social media. The 2019 challenge reduced contamination from 26 percent to 21 percent, Kirwin says. The city has also distributed educational magnets to all apartments and has conducted audits of the waste and recycling stream.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the decrease in contamination and we’re seeing more property managers take it upon themselves to get more involved,” Kirwin says.

At a recycling conference in Texas, Kirwin heard Wittig talk and approached him afterward about the work she’s doing in San Marcos involving multifamily recycling. A year later, the city received a grant from the nonprofit.

The grant is funding three different multifamily recycling pilot projects. Under the pilot, all 15,000 apartments will receive educational material, including an updated magnet and fact sheet about how to recycle right and how to participate in the program, Wittig says. Additionally, 2,000 apartments will receive in-unit bins with recycling decals that remind residents not to recycle plastic bags or bagged recyclables. Another 2,000 units will receive educational materials, in-unit bins and valet service two times a week throughout the duration of the pilot, Kirwin says.

The grant also will pay for six interns, who are college students, to distribute the educational materials and bins to apartments and provide the valet recycling service through the end of March.

“We’re measuring both contamination and generation of recyclables in each of those situations,” Wittig says.

Multifamily in demand

While some multifamily recycling programs are moving forward because of recycling ordinances, there’s also strong public demand, Wittig says.

“We put out a request for proposals to fund projects and it was overwhelming how many multifamily recycling projects came in,” he says. “We’ve seen surveys from the apartments where people come back to ownership and say, ‘We’re interested in recycling.’ I’ve seen some surprise from large apartment owners and managers that say they didn’t expect that.”

Wittig adds, “I think residents are driving it. Mandates are driving it. It’s this long-term unsolved area of recycling. There’s strong interest, but I think people haven’t figured out how to do it, yet.”

He also has noticed an increase in valet service companies that are offering door-to-door recycling services to entire apartment complexes.

“The companies and property owners are focused on waste pickup, but we see it as an incredible opportunity to reach all of these folks with a recycling message and container. Recycling contamination in multifamily is a challenge, so valet has the potential to address that. You have a middleman touching that commodity before it goes into the bin to the hauler,” Wittig explains.

The Recycling Partnership is also kicking off a multifamily recycling project in Atlanta in the first half or 2020 as well as a "large pool of multifamily recycling projects" in the second half of the year.

“Our goal with multifamily is to pilot a few different things, like in-unit bins and valet recycling, to see how to establish best management practices for multifamily,” Wittig says.