Multifamily in the mix

Features - Multifamily Recycling

Challenges and tips to keep in mind when offering recycling programs to multifamily properties.

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April 2, 2019

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Since 2012, Maryland has required multifamily properties with 10 units or more to offer recycling to their residents. However, for multifamily properties with fewer than 10 units, recycling has been optional.

Last year, concerned citizens in Frederick County, Maryland, reached out to the county’s Department of Solid Waste Management to express their desire to have multifamily recycling available to properties with fewer than 10 units.

“Concerned citizens pushed for their desire to have multifamily recycling at these properties,” says Deborah Moran, commercial recycling program analyst at Frederick County’s Department of Solid Waste Management.

Moran and Rebecca Culler, recycling program manager at Frederick County’s Department of Solid Waste Management, responded to those requests and began to analyze the impact a multifamily recycling program would have on these smaller properties in the county. Culler says they considered how many properties would be affected by this type of program and what education would be required. They also considered what this type of program would cost the county and how it might affect the county’s hauler.

“As we did the analysis, it wound up being a big enough reward for the folks who need [multifamily recycling] and a small enough cost on our end that we would be able to do it,” Culler says.

Moran adds that a multifamily recycling program for properties with fewer than 10 units affected about 250 properties in the county, or “so few properties in the grand scheme of the county that [they] didn’t feel it would be a detriment to the haulers.”

As a result, in July 2018 Frederick County launched a multifamily recycling program with opt-in eligibility to help these smaller units. Residents who were particularly vocal about wanting multifamily recycling expressed their gratitude when the program rolled out. However, Culler says it’s up to the owners or managers of these multifamily properties to opt into the program.

“Many of these property owners aren’t actually at the property,” she says. “It’s the people who live and work there who want the service more. A lot of property owners were confused they weren’t receiving this service in the first place.”

To date, eight of the smaller multifamily properties have opted into the program, and Moran expects “the popularity of the program to grow.”

She adds that residents at these smaller units have been connecting with their property managers to explain the benefit of adding the recycling service. “Residents are taking the opportunity to talk to their property managers directly,” she says. “And that’s opening up more lines of communication on recycling.”

Considerations of concern

Last year, the city of Columbia, Missouri, also made updates to its multifamily recycling program. The city had offered recycling to apartment complexes since 1997; however, up until last year, apartment complexes had to pay to have recycling containers at their properties to participate in the program. The city updated its multifamily recycling ordinance in 2018, allowing all multifamily and residential properties to receive free recycling containers from the city.

As a result, Ben Kreitner, waste minimization coordinator for the city of Columbia, says about 10 more multifamily properties have decided to participate in the city’s recycling program.

Also, the city is transitioning from using shared roll-off containers to fixed containers at participating apartment complexes. Prior to 2018, 14 collection bins were shared between 42 apartment complexes, with each bin being shared between three complexes, spending several days at each location. However, Kreitner says having permanent containers at each apartment complex could improve recycling rates at these multifamily properties.

He adds that the city has budgeted to purchase 30 new miniroll-off containers for this as well.

Despite these changes to multifamily recycling in Columbia, Kreitner says some complex owners choose not to receive recycling services. He says one of the biggest concerns he hears from apartment complex owners is space constraints when adding recycling containers.

“A lot of these properties were not constructed to have space for trash and recycling,” he says. “That’s especially the case in Columbia since we still have dual-stream [recycling]. Instead of one dumpster, it’s three. If we go with miniroll-off containers, that still takes up one-and-a-half parking spaces.”

Contamination is also a big concern with multifamily properties. Kreitner says any time an apartment complex joins the city’s recycling program, contamination is an issue in the beginning.

“[Some containers] are colored almost the same as the trash compactor, and the message isn’t always clear that this is a recycling container, not a trash container,” he says. “There’s confusion and contamination for the first few weeks. But it does improve over time.”

However, municipalities and recyclers need to be aware that resident turnover is more common at apartment complexes, so it can be more difficult to educate residents on the recycling program.

“Residents don’t always understand what is proper recycling,” says Uzair Iqbal, recycling coordinator for the city of San Antonio. “They have stickers that say, ‘recycling only,’ but that doesn’t teach the resident.”

Also, with communal containers at multifamily properties, Iqbal says it can be difficult to figure out who is the culprit behind the contamination. Along with contamination, Iqbal adds that he has seen illegal dumping occur at multifamily properties around San Antonio, which he says he thinks is because of a lack of awareness.

Yet, these concerns can all be solved in part when municipalities and recyclers talk to multifamily property owners and residents about the recycling programs they’re involved in.

Reaching owners and residents

Blair Pollock, solid waste planner for the Orange County Solid Waste Management Department in North Carolina, admits he’s a “data fiend” who likes to conduct studies to make informed decisions. Recently, his department partnered with University of North Carolina graduate students to determine ways to improve multifamily recycling.

Based on the graduate students’ research, he says he learned that “managers [of apartment complexes] can actually be the pivot point—if they’re on-site managers—in improving recycling.”

Although residents use the recycling service, the property managers make decisions about the recycling services offered at their complexes. As a result of the research, Pollock says his department has decided to develop deeper relationships with managers at multifamily properties in Orange County.

With the multifamily properties, Pollock says he communicates with the property managers to discuss adding metal signs that could educate their residents on the recycling program. He also sends managers an electronic postcard that lists what’s acceptable in the county’s recycling program, and he’ll provide them with other recycling education literature. The county also provides these managers with brochures on recycling education in multiple languages—English, Korean, Mandarin and Spanish.

“You have to engage with management at the complexes on several levels,” Pollock says. “There’s no such thing as set the cart and forget it. We try to care for our managers and keep in touch with them. We respond to ongoing problems.”

"Concerned citizens pushed for their desire to have multifamily recycling at these properties.” – Deborah Moran, Frederick County Department of Solid Waste Management

Pollock notes that off-site managers of multifamily properties are always tougher to reach than on-site managers, yet they are still just as important to connect with on recycling education for those complexes.

Iqbal adds that property managers are his department’s “primary source of contact” when discussing multifamily recycling programs. The department tries to connect often with property managers of the complexes that are using San Antonio’s recycling program.

Because apartment complexes have high turnover, Iqbal stresses the importance of connecting with the property managers on the do’s and don’ts of recycling.

“It’s tough with folks moving in and out,” he says. “So, make sure property managers are talking to residents so that they understand the program.”

In addition to educating property managers on multifamily recycling programs, municipalities and recyclers need to reach out to residents at these properties. Moran says residents are sometimes more important than the property managers in the case of units where the property manager is based off-site.

Moran adds that old-fashioned direct- mail brochures are still one of the best ways to reach residents. “Get [education] to the resident,” she says. “Their voice is more powerful than ours is to the [off-site] property owner.”

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted by email at msmalley@gie.net.