“Is recycling broken?” asked Jill Martin, director of community programs at The Recycling Partnership, during the Paper and Plastics Recycling Conference Oct. 23-25 in Chicago.
“No, but we have work to do,” she said. Martin presented alongside Scott Mouw, senior director of strategy and research at The Recycling Partnership, during the Quality Control: Community Education that Works session.
Contamination issues in the recycling stream led The Recycling Partnership to work with material recovery facilities (MRFs), local governments and communities across the country on “Feet on the Street” or tagging programs, in which crews inspect recycling carts, leave a tag and reject service in effort to reduce contamination and change consumer behavior. Though costly, mostly due to staffing the program, The Recycling Partnership gave several examples of communities that invested in these programs and produced a return on investment afterwards.
“We’re kind of doing our own thing in silos, but the health of the system is contingent on all these stakeholders—consumers, the MRF, the haulers, manufacturers, brand owners, retailers—all contributing to the recycling system,” Martin said. “It’s going to take a systemic approach to solve the problem.”
Understanding and tracking a community’s contamination rate is a critical first step to starting an education program that targets contamination. An effective technique to identifying a city’s contamination rate is conducting a capture rate study, which identifies contamination by weight and occurrence and is a “powerful” tool communities can use to communicate “one simple message” to residents, including don’t bag recyclables or recycle aluminum cans.
If a community doesn’t have the funds for a capture rate study, Martin suggested MRF owners and operators use a MRF material tracking form to identify, track and communicate with customers about what material is entering the tip floor.
The Recycling Partnership also conducts inbound material audits and compiles the data into a database to calculate a blended value of the material and the inbound contamination rate. According to a recent survey conducted by The Recycling Partnership, 17 percent of communities know their inbound material contamination rate.
“I think it’s important for a community to figure this out, so they’re not grouped with all the customers that deliver to the MRF,” Martin said. “That’s when you can start digging in and tackling problems.”
For a successful education program, Martin suggested engaging all stakeholders, including local government, in the beginning of the process to get them on board. She also said to prepare and plan to reject carts and service.
“Some communities don’t have the political backing to say 'we’re not going to collect material,'” Martin said. “Some communities offer warnings. Ideally, the best results come when you reject that service because then they pay attention.”
Throughout the program, The Recycling Partnership sends mail inserts to all residents using that one simple message around a top issue in the community. For example, bagged recyclables. The nonprofit also uses yard signs and other means of communication to get the message to residents.
The Recycling Partnership offers do it yourself signage on its website for understaffed or underfunded community programs, Martin said.
Martin and Mouw shared the results of The Recycling Partnership’s latest tagging program project, which took place across five communities in Ohio. The nonprofit worked with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to grant $172,000 to the communities to do the tagging program and track the results.
In Fairfield, Ohio, contamination dropped from 22 percent to 12 percent. In Akron, Ohio, the tagging program resulted in a 40 percent reduction in contamination, from 38 percent to 23. The program also increased the value of material by $200,000 in one community. With the cost of the program ($86,000), the community still made an additional profit of $114,000 for the year after the program.
“That’s a lot of money to send an inspection crew to every household, but we did add value to the material, and it did pay for itself,” Martin said.