Rethinking rural recycling

Features - Municipal Recycling

Rural recycling programs face more challenges than their urban counterparts, but successful models have overcome some of the biggest obstacles.

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Barriers faced by rural recycling programs are of no surprise to today’s recyclers. Challenged by low population density, higher cost-per-household collection, often distant markets and lower per capita tax revenue streams, these programs are not afforded the economies of scale central to the processing and marketing success of urban recycling programs.

Fortunately, successful models demonstrate best practices that can be applied to achieve results in rural recovery programs.

Planning, policies, practices

Rural communities face many challenges around recovery programs, starting with planning. Taking the time to develop a program plan helps to identify and solve for potential challenges, set recovery goals and develop supportive policies, such as ordinances to control the flow of materials, license and contract haulers, ban materials from landfill and create incentives for recovery.

Many states require sustainable materials management plans that provide a framework for communities to set recovery goals and the specific plans to reach them.

Emmet County, Michigan, used the state-mandated planning process to set program goals, prioritize access with recycling drop-off sites and develop mechanisms to fund and encourage recycling by residents and businesses. One of these mechanisms was the development of a solid waste ordinance that included pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) provisions, hauler licensing and controlling the flow of solid waste to the county-owned transfer station.

Similarly, Logan County, Ohio, was successful when it partnered with local municipalities and implemented a comprehensive and convenient resource recovery program that includes curbside, drop-off sites, a center for hard-to-recycle materials (CHARM) and a strong PAYT system. In 2007, the Logan County Solid Waste District operated three curbside recycling programs serviced by the private sector and five part-time drop-off sites. The first 24-hour recycling center was built in the village of Lakeview through a partnership between the village and district. Using this same process, the district expanded the number of drop-off sites to 11 throughout the county.

Becoming a bigger fish

Rural jurisdictions may experience collection inefficiencies or insufficient recycling volume for cost-effective processing because of their lower population densities. While some communities solve this with small-scale community-invested material recovery facilities (MRFs), others benefit from partnering with neighboring counties to increase the overall volume of recyclables collected and processed.

Many small communities collaborate to organize a district, an authority and/or intergovernmental agreements to create the necessary material flow to enable collection, processing and marketing economic effectiveness.

Emmet County took a partnership approach to create the volumes needed to operate efficiently. It entered into inter- governmental agreements with neighboring counties, including Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Otsego, to boost the population served from 35,000 to more than 100,000. These agreements enabled economies of scale and the operation of a MRF at the more cost-effective throughput of 12,000 tons per year.

In some states like Ohio and Wisconsin, statutes require all counties to create or develop districts, encouraging or mandating hub-and-spoke systems to achieve collection, transfer and processing efficiencies. State law requires each Ohio county to establish or join other counties to form a “solid waste management district,” such as Jefferson-Belmont Regional Solid Waste Authority, also known as the JB Green Team. This statewide approach also positioned Logan County, which calls itself a “Zero Waste County,” to successfully plan and implement a comprehensive array of programs and services, including commercial, institutional and nonprofit recycling, educational resources, competitive grants funding, waste audits and litter prevention and cleanup sponsorship.

Michigan’s Marquette County is upgrading to a single-stream regional MRF that will serve most of the Upper Peninsula. Marquette County established partnerships with private-sector haulers, benefiting both parties through reduced transport mileage, and built economies of scale for efficient MRF operations. To guide these developments, Marquette surveyed residents and examined barriers to recycling. During this research, the convenience of single-stream collection rose to the top and motivated the decision to upgrade the MRF.

These programs have benefited from joining forces to increase economies of scale, improve their market position as well as develop consistency of recycling operations and messaging across a larger region. The benefits are seen in lowering per ton and per household costs and increasing recovery. 

Collection efficiencies

Some of the best rural recycling programs mix opt-out curbside collection in more dense areas and conveniently located drop-off sites in more rural areas. Many programs also include one main drop-off site for residential and commercial recyclables as well as hard-to-recycle materials, such as paints, batteries, tires, mattresses and C&D items.

Logan County, for instance, sports a combination of drop-off and curbside collection and has its CHARM for more challenging materials. Logan County’s diversion rate increased from 18 percent to more than 50 percent in 2018.

Like the development of other successful recycling programs, predominantly rural recycling programs need to be intentional about underlying planning and policy and providing excellent education and training resources.

Drop-off sites come in many shapes and sizes. The simplest consist of covered roll-off bins that are serviced with a roll-off or hook-lift truck, hauling the full bins to the MRF and replacing them with empty bins at the drop-off site.

Emmet County has evolved to pulling two bins at a time with a truck-trailer combo for drop-off sites that are farther away. 

Presque Isle County, one of Emmet County’s recycling partners, benefits from a partnership with GFL Environmental USA Inc., which provides dumpster-like bins and services them on a collection route with a front-load truck, providing efficient servicing of all sites with fewer runs to the MRF to unload. 

Developing local markets

Distance to markets is another challenge that rural communities need to solve.

Emmet County chose to work directly with end markets as well as with brokers and developed its program offerings and sorting capabilities to meet the specifications these markets required. The county moves more than 60 material types to more than 27 manufacturers in Michigan, with a small percentage of materials heading out of state.

Emmet County has benefited from finding local and regional end markets with lower freight costs and strong market relationships that have weathered downturns in the markets.

Those closer markets also accommodate partial loads to regional factories. Emmet County ships baled plant pots and trays 40 miles to East Jordan Plastics to be remanufactured into branded plant pots and trays, and gable-top cartons and paper cups travel only 30 miles to Great Lakes Tissue Co. to be made into toilet paper.

How to fund excellence

There is no best way to fund recycling programs in rural communities. Traditional approaches include levying a millage or instituting a fee via a municipal utility or solid waste billing. Foundation and state grants also can be leveraged.

Emmet County has demonstrated that a diversified funding portfolio combined with incentive-based pricing, fees for service and an emphasis on highest-and-best-use marketing of materials to increase the value of its commodities enables a program to thrive without relying on county general fund tax dollars.

Successful strategies can include hauler licensing, fees for service and public- private partnerships.

Many resources are available for funding infrastructure (e.g., building, equipment, carts, trucks). With long-term program commitment, streams of tip fees can be used to fund debt finance instruments (e.g., public bonds, loans and impact investments) to purchase capital assets.

Successfully blending public and private assets often is the best way to finance a new facility. Where siting and permit uncertainties could keep private infrastructure developers out of a market, the public sector can step in to eliminate these concerns by securing these assets.

In addition, recent growth in the diversity of investors has created new opportunities for gaining investment from new funding sources. A few new approaches include impact investors, sustainable equity funds, philanthropic grants and green utility funds.

Education and outreach

Recycling education and user outreach have been mainstays of successful community recycling programs for decades. However, programs don’t always receive the combination of stakeholder collaboration, clear and consistent messaging and sufficient budgetary investment needed to enable high-quality user participation.

Successful recycling educators find that the key education and outreach ingredient in the development of good rural programs is the ability to understand the collective motivations of people to make behavior change and to identify the trusted resources for information gathering. If this can be accomplished, progress can be made toward greater participation, higher recovery and lower contamination.

Education and training resources available for communities remain the same (e.g., traditional media, social media, flyers and bin labels), but targeted approaches like those used by Marquette County after a focused survey of more than 1,400 residents by a local TV station showed the value the community placed on limiting the flow of garbage to the landfill.

The county developed an education campaign with the tagline “Less Landfill More U.P. to Enjoy” and created a dedicated website as a one-stop shop for information on solid waste management and the new single-stream recycling program. In addition, the county distributed mailers to bring the message directly to residents. While this step was an added cost to produce and mail, it was deemed but worth the effort and expense.

Emmet County accomplished similar understanding through its efforts, including surveys and focus groups, and has developed successful messaging for all key audiences in the community. The county strives for consistency across all messaging platforms with branding, fonts and color schemes and meets its community members where they are with messaging that speaks to them.

While covering all the basics, such as consistent messaging, keeping sites and bins in good shape with clear information and having a phone number available for all participating communities, Emmet County also excels at empowering community influencers to get accurate messaging out as well-respected advocates of the recycling programs and services.

Be intentional

Rural recycling programs need to be intentional about underlying planning and policy and providing excellent education and training resources to their residents. In addition, these programs need to have appropriately sized and configured collection and processing technology.

Also, community-focused approaches and best-practice policies can provide cost-effective and rewarding results as recycling becomes the social norm, and great pride can be taken in the recycling program’s accomplishments.

Elisa Seltzer is a senior consultant at Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), Ann Arbor, Michigan. Seltzer can be reached at eseltzer@recycle.com.