Curbside Upgrade

Features - Municipal Recycling

Atlanta’s Cartlanta program helps generate revenue and increases collection by 55 percent.

June 6, 2013

The city of Atlanta launched a new recycling campaign dubbed “Cartlanta” in September of 2012. Now, several months into the program, those efforts are coming to fruition.

The city reported in May that the program has allowed the city to increase the tonnage of recyclables collected by 55 percent so far compared with the previous year’s data. The new program also created 18 solid waste jobs and generated some $28,000 per month in new revenue by diverting recyclables from landfills.

At the core of the city’s effort: the distribution of new 96-gallon recycling carts to 66,000 single-family households in the city during the fourth quarter of 2012. These larger containers replaced 18-gallon carts the residents were previously using. Around 30,000 households, meanwhile, had previously received the larger carts as part of a pilot program.

“Our goal was to make it as easy as possible for Atlanta residents to recycle at the curb,” says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “With these new larger recycling carts, we are diverting more valuable materials from the landfill and making Atlanta a more sustainable city.”

Under the official program rollout, the first 96-gallon cart was delivered by Mayor Reed himself Oct. 15, 2012. The rest of the carts were distributed at a rate of about 1,000 per day, the city says. Less than 1 percent of household residents reportedly refused the carts.

Dexter White, deputy commissioner for the Atlanta Department of Public Works, says one of Mayor Reed’s goals since taking office in 2010 was upgrading the city’s recycling efforts to become one of the 10 most sustainable U.S. cities.

“We have a goal of reducing waste going to our landfills by 90 percent by the year 2020,” says White. And the city hopes to do that largely by increasing collections at the curb, he says.

On that note, the related 96-gallon recycling bins effectively represent a five-fold increase from the 18-gallon containers used previously.

White says while the tonnage of recyclables collected has increased since the carts were delivered, so has participation. So far, the city has been able to increase its landfill diversion rate to 30 percent, White says. That is expected to increase to 50 percent by 2015, before reaching 90 percent in 2020.

White says the city receives roughly $30 per ton for recycled material from its local vendor, a recycling center that was selected after a competitive bid process. The city controls 140,000 tons of curbside collected material each year.

Marketing Partner

A key partner and creator of the Cartlanta program has been the Curbside Value Partnership (CVP), a nonprofit organization headquartered in Arlington, Va., that helps prepare customized education and public relations campaigns for municipalities across the country to help boost participation in curbside recycling programs.

CVP is funded by a number of well-known names in the metals and packaging industries, including members of the Aluminum Association, Can Manufacturers Institute, the American Chemistry Council, Grocery Manufacturers Association, International Bottled Water Association and Keep America Beautiful. Some specific companies that count themselves as supporters include Alcoa, Ball Corp., Sonoco-Phoenix and Crown Holdings, to name a few.

Steve Thompson, executive director of CVP, says the group was founded in 2004, arising from a sense of frustration on the part of aluminum sheet and can makers who had witnessed a decline in the recycling rate of aluminum cans. According to Thompson, the rate fell from a high of 67 percent in 1992 to 50 percent by 2000. Aluminum can manufacturers were motivated to look for ways to reverse that.

“They wanted to see if there was something we could do collectively to turn that trend line around,” says Thompson. “They asked us to take a look at where the leakage was occurring.”

Thompson says the group determined that the easiest way to solve the problem was by putting a renewed focus on existing residential curbside programs. Research conducted by the group showed that while more than half the households in the country had access to curbside recycling, only half of them were actually participating.

After some pilot testing, the CVP debuted its first educational public relations campaign in 2005 at the National Recycling Congress in Minneapolis.

“Since that time we’ve been fortunate enough to have more communities in our queue than we’ve had resources to accommodate them,” Thompson says. Over the years the curbside value partnership has partnered with 31 communities and has launched four statewide programs, providing customized education, marketing and strategic plans.

“We give them the tools and work with them to develop a campaign and execute that campaign,” says Thompson. He says that while CVP does provide some resources, the communities it partners with also must “have some skin in the game” in terms of their commitment to improving participation and increasing tonnages.

In addition to helping communities develop campaigns, Thompson says, CVP also follows through by evaluating the effectiveness of those campaigns.

“In the process they will learn how to think strategically and embed that in their future programs so their yield is higher,” Thompson explains.

Specific components of a CVP education and public relations program might include promotional inserts in utility bills, bus wraps and direct mail pieces.

Recycling Resources for Smaller Communities

Steve Thompson, executive director of the Curbside Value Partnership, says while the organization’s work can make a difference in consumer outreach success, CVP has limited resources to develop customized programs for communities: The nonprofit can handle about three to five cities per year, he says. Prerequisites include a willingness to obtain and share recycling data, a high level of political support, and the existence of operationally sound programs in those locales.

So far, most of CVP’s partner cities have been larger metropolitan areas: Atlanta; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Omaha, Neb.; and Charlotte, N.C., are a few examples. But in March 2012 the organization launched CVP Connect,, a public relations option for smaller communities that allows them to benefit from some of the marketing expertise that CVP has been able to deploy.

“It costs us about the same to build up a strategic marketing plan for a city of 4,000 as it does to build one for a city of 400,000,” says Thompson. “It’s a free way for communities to go to school on what CVP has learned since 2004.” By answering questions, Thompson explains, city recycling personnel are steered to one of four strategic initiatives with professionally done creative materials to match.

Thompson says while actually getting involved in decisions about carts and MRF operations is not part of the service that CVP offers, the educational and promotional help the group can provide is like “hitting a reset button on a stale program.”

For the city’s part, White says CVP’s involvement has been a helpful part of the program. “They provided us help pro bono with promoting our program, developing that brand [and] coming up with the name Cartlanta as the title for our recycling efforts,” he says.

Early Groundwork
Additional reasons behind Atlanta’s success in recycling, says White, is its early groundwork on the initiative as well as commitments from top levels of the political hierarchy.

“I think that what made it easy for us is that we started much ahead of the actual delivery of the carts,” White says, referring to the announcements and press conferences arranged by the city.

Even more important, he adds, was getting the city’s leadership involved. “The mayor was directly invovled in making sure that this was going to be successful,” says White. “Mayor Reed continuously supports the program and mentions it as one of the pillars in terms of reaching that 90 percent reduction in 2020.”

The city also will unroll additional measures on its path to 90 percent diversion by 2020, White says. One future program is the launch of an incentive program where the city’s 96,000 single-family households can generate reward points for participation in the recycling program.

A pilot rewards program was conducted in 2009 involving 10,000 residents and Recyclebank’s ReCART program. White says the city of Atlanta will open its bid process May 30 to select the official recycling incentivizing company for its full-scale rewards program.

The rewards will be based on participation, White explains. The new 96-gallon recycling containers use RFID (radio frequency identification) tags that can be scanned and read by collectors upon pickup. In doing so, collectors, and ultimately the city, can identify which households are bringing their carts to the curb and which are not.

“We’ll be able to identify who is participating and who is not participating,” says White. “We are hoping that we will increase our participation rate.”

The RFID tags also will help the city to focus its educational efforts on those residents that are not participating.

The city also plans to add new collection trucks. “We are in the process of purchasing 20 compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks that will be used solely to pick up recycling,” White says.

Additionally, Atlanta is operating an ambassador program, funded by $25,000 from a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant. The funds will be used to recruit 350 neighborhood volunteers to educate citizens about recycling.

White says Atlanta also will reinstate school partnerships to educate children about recycling, something that hasn’t been done in a long time he says. “The concept there is if you educate the child, the child is going to take it home and pass it along to the parents,” he says.

Another future component of the city’s ongoing mission, says White, is a push for more recycling among commercial establishments and businesses. He estimates this effort could contribute as much as 600,000 additional tons of material per year. “We want to work as partners with our commercial businesses to get them involved in the waste reduction process,” White says.


The author is a managing editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at