whats recylable
Photo courtesy of the San Jose, California, Environmental Services Department

California city's pilot project improves recycling behavior

Recycling cart lids with recycling tips reduce contamination by 20 percent.

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November 25, 2021

A pilot program conducted by the city of San José’s Environmental Services Department has improved residents’ recycling behavior. The project provided recycling cart lids with trilingual (English, Spanish and Vietnamese) labels showing what is recyclable and what isn’t.

The labels were molded into the cart lids and feature images of recyclables and nonrecyclables along with easy-to-understand text in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, the department says.

The program, conducted this spring, sampled recycling material from nearly 5,000 single-family homes along five collection routes in north and east San José where the graphic labels were distributed. The contamination rates along those routes dropped by an average of 20 percent, according to the Environmental Services Department.

The citywide contamination rate in 2020 was 51 percent, while the average contamination rate for the 4,767 homes in the pilot project was 73 percent.

The study determined the cart lids with educational information were particularly effective at decreasing contamination in areas with very high contamination rates. The largest decrease occurred among 956 households on a route with an 81 percent contamination rate before the pilot. That rate dropped by 35 percent, the Environmental Services Department says, with the pilot.

Recycling contamination worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as San José residents spent more time at home and generated more waste, the department says. Compared with April to December 2019, from April to December 2020, single-family homes generated:

  • 8 percent more garbage;
  • 17 percent more recycling; and
  • 33 percent more recycling residue.

While the amount of garbage increased, the city says it did not see an increase in residents’ requests for larger garbage carts, which means some residents likely placed extra garbage in their recycling carts.

“Our pilot program shows we can make a big difference in recycling behavior by providing residents with information right where they recycle,” says Kerrie Romanow, director of the Environmental Services Department. “We will be rolling out more of these cart lids in phases, beginning with the most contaminated routes.”

The pilot was part of a comprehensive, trilingual Recycle Right outreach campaign to inform residents about how to recycle properly. Among the campaign’s many features is SanJoseRecycles.org, a website that includes a recycling guide that shows what goes where, tips and articles and other resources.