By Megan Quinn
MRFs, municipalities, and haulers are working to reduce the public’s confusion about what belongs in the recycling bin. Having each community agree on a consistent message is the first step.
Residents in Austin and the surrounding suburbs are relatively good at recycling correctly, says Kerry Getter, founder of Balcones Resources. The company processes residential curbside recycling for Austin and 16 other communities in central Texas. The loads that end up on Balcones’ tipping floor often include items from the “big offenders” in terms of contamination, such as plastic bags and food waste, but it’s usually not bad enough that the recycler has to reject the entire load and send it to the landfill. When Balcones does reject a load, it comes with serious costs. Balcones pays about $500 a ton to handle “nonconforming items,” which these days adds up to about $50,000 a month. “We don’t own our landfill, so there’s a big expense for us to dispose of those items,” Getter says. It also disrupts regular sorting operations and pulls labor away from other daily tasks.
The MRF works with the city and third-party commercial haulers to educate residents about which items belong in the bin and which ones don’t. Yet Balcones—and other materials recovery facilities all across the United States—know that keeping curbside recycling bins free of contaminants is easier said than done. Some residents aren’t sure what should go in the blue bin and what should go in the trash. Some might not care. Others are prone to “wishcycling,” meaning they put something in the recycling bin in the hope that it might get recycled, even if their MRF doesn’t accept that item. In a recent Grocery Manufacturers Association survey, 26% of respondents said recycling was more complicated than assembling IKEA furniture, 23% thought it was more difficult than completing a tax return, and 22% thought it was more complex than the stock market.
Municipalities, MRFs, haulers, and recycling organizations are trying various methods to make recycling clearer for residents while also getting the cleanest, most desirable materials out of the mix. But rules about what residents can and cannot recycle in their residential bin might vary from place to place, and sometimes the city, hauler, and MRF aren’t on the same page about what’s acceptable to recycle. Getter says this confusion hurts both the planet and his bottom line. “Our biggest challenge is getting people to conform to the existing rules about recycling,” he says. “If we could achieve that, it would be a wonderful thing. I think folks are well-meaning, but sometimes their best intentions create issues for processors.”
The first step to reducing confusion and contamination is to arm residents with knowledge before they put an item in the bin, says Cody Marshall, chief community strategy officer at The Recycling Partnership (Falls Church, Va.), which helps research and fund projects to improve recycling. Communities across North America have tried a combination of mailers, ads on buses, social media posts, and other messaging aimed at demystifying the recycling process.
All of these tactics have the potential to alleviate confusion, but only if the message is clear and easy to follow, he says. The Recycling Partnership’s research on recycling-related messages shows that direct, specific messaging will yield much better results than catchy slogans, he says. “When you say something like ‘keep it clean,’ that message can paralyze people because they don’t know what that means. Does it mean put your recycling in the dishwasher?” A clear, concise message, like “do not put plastic bags in your blue bin,” works much better than “don’t contaminate,” he says. “People want to do the right thing, so you have to tell them exactly what you need. You have to give them a specific ask.”
Communities also need to reach residents on multiple platforms so they hear, see, and read the messages multiple times, says Katherine Hypolite, communications coordinator of Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp. (Johnston, R.I.), which collects almost all of the state’s residential recycling. In 2017, the MRF launched its statewide recycling campaign, which included mailers, billboards, and social media messages featuring local Rhode Island celebrities. It also created a specially targeted campaign for Providence, where the majority of the state’s recycling contamination comes from. “It has a highly transient population, there are a lot of languages spoken, and many people live in rental properties,” which are all factors that affect contamination rates, she says. In the last year, the messaging campaign has helped reduce the number of loads Rhode Island Resource Recovery rejects from the city, she says. “Whatever strategy you try, you have to hit that rule of seven,” she adds, meaning residents should hear or see the recycling message seven times to internalize it. “We have to hit people where they live, work, and play.”
San Jose, Calif., also launched a brand-new recycling campaign this year. It includes bus ads, TV commercials featuring celebrities from the local soccer team, videos explaining how trash affects recycling streams, and a recycling database, sanjoserecycles.org, which residents can search to see if they can recycle a specific item in their curbside bin. The city rolled out the campaign in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. “We have a diverse population, and we needed to make sure as many of our residents as possible can see it,” says Jennie Loft, public information manager for San Jose’s Environmental Services Department.
For the last 13 years, haulers in San Jose were in charge of educating residents about the correct way to recycle. “If you’re working with three recycling haulers, you’re getting three different mechanisms for doing outreach,” Loft says. San Jose ESD took over the educational responsibilities July 1 to make the message more consistent. “There are so many things going on in the recycling world, and we wanted to be able to react faster to conditions,” she says. The city also is able to leverage resources haulers might not have, such as access to celebrity endorsements from soccer player Chris Wondolowski of the San Jose Earthquakes.
Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection is about to celebrate the first anniversary of its recycling campaign, Recycle Smart MA. It features a website with a downloadable, “picture-heavy” list of items that can and cannot go in the bin, along with videos that answer common questions, such as why plastic bags are so problematic, says Brooke Nash, branch chief for MassDEP’s municipal waste reduction program. There’s also a searchable online “recyclopedia” to help residents determine whether an item—say, a plastic clamshell container—can go in the bin.
The state of Rhode Island started using standardized recycling bin labels from Recycle Across America (Minneapolis), a nonprofit that promotes using societywide standardized labels on every bin to make it easier for people to recycle correctly. Recycle Across America works with communities, MRFs, and haulers to distribute the standardized labels featuring color photos and simple words to describe the items that belong in the bin. RAA founder and Executive Director Mitch Hedlund believes standardized labels help take away the guesswork people go through when deciding what to put in the bin, and they help increase recycling levels and decrease contamination. She likens the labels to speed limit signs. “If those signs weren’t standardized, it would be insanely confusing to drive. Even though the maximum speed might change from one place to the next, we adjust accordingly. Recycling rules might be different from one MRF to the next, but having the rules presented in a standardized format makes it easy for the public to follow those rules.”
RAA works specifically with MRFs to determine what should be on the labels. It helped Rhode Island’s MRF distribute more than 87,000 labels over two years, which Hypolite says has contributed to the state reducing overall contamination by about 18%. RAA also is partnering with ISRI to spread the word about its standardized label approach. In August, the organizations were planning a webinar for ISRI members about RAA and the process of implementing its labels, and Hedlund hopes to work with ISRI’s members this fall.
Holding the public accountable
Communities can no longer just rely on traditional outreach methods to spread the word about recycling right—“the work doesn’t end there,” MassDEP’s Nash cautions. For the most stubborn neighborhoods where people are still putting diapers, garden hoses, and plastic bags in their recycling bin, “you can’t just get away with mailing them a postcard. You have to give direct feedback right on the curb, too.”
Some cities have had success with curbside tagging programs, where either the hauler or an inspector the city hires goes out in the community, lifts the lid on residents’ recycling bins, and takes a close look at the contents inside. Bins with too many offending items don’t get collected, and the inspector leaves a note, sticker, or “oops tag” with information about why the bin didn’t get emptied.
The Recycling Partnership helps facilitate some of these tagging programs with communities throughout the country, Marshall says. In 2016, MassDEP gave The Recycling Partnership a grant to help the state launch its cart tagging pilot program with three communities. After identifying the recycling routes with the worst-offending residents, gathering baseline contamination rates from MRFs, and figuring out the logistics of actually tagging offending recycling bins, the “oops tags” proved “extremely successful” at reducing contamination, Nash says. MassDEP now runs the program itself and has helped 22 cities implement the tagging program. Cities pick “the biggest problem areas of the city,” usually an area with about 1,500 to 2,000 homes, and monitor those recycling bins for eight weeks. During that time, the city logs how many bins don’t get picked up because they are tagged for containing too many offending items. The cities implementing this program have seen a 30% to 70% decrease in tagging rates at the end of the eight-week period, she says.
Part of what works about tagging the bins is that residents must reckon directly with their recycling mistakes, Marshall says. “People want their recycling gone. Often, they don’t know they’re doing something wrong until the bin doesn’t get picked up,” he says. This method works better than other penalties MassDEP tried, Nash says. During the pilot, one community experimented with charging residents a fine instead of tagging the bin. “We found the [fine] is not nearly as effective as leaving the cart behind,” she says. The tagging method works best in conjunction with other informational campaigns, Marshall adds. “The ‘oops tag’ is not a new strategy. It’s a systematic and tactical approach that’s connected to a broader recipe” that might also include residents getting a direct mailer or seeing a bus ad, he says.
Social media is another creative accountability tool that has worked well in towns like Coventry, R.I. In addition to “stickering” carts that have too many unacceptable items, the public works department uses its popular Facebook page to post humorous photos and videos of residents’ recycling carts to teach lessons about the consequences of not recycling correctly. The photos don’t show house numbers or other details that could link the picture to a specific resident, but “people know we post a lot, and they don’t want their bin to show up on Facebook,” says Melissa Soares, the town’s special duties clerk. At the end of July, for example, the department posted a photo of an entire television crammed inside a recycling bin. The post reminded residents that they should take electronics to the transfer station, not leave them at the curb. “Looks like there was nothing to watch on TV?” one person commented. Jokes aside, the “shame page” has worked wonders to hold residents accountable while opening a dialogue, Soares says. In the same post, another resident asked, “Where’s the transfer station again? I have a small TV to bring.”
Solutions to the contamination problem tend to focus on educating residents, but experts say big challenges remain when the municipality, hauler, and MRF aren’t on the same page. Last year, The Recycling Partnership studied the 26 communities one Chicago-area MRF served and the 40 communities in and around Columbus, Ohio, that another MRF served—they call such an area a MRFshed. The study found that 77% of the municipalities around Columbus and 39% of the municipalities around Chicago had a different list of acceptable recycling items than the MRF did. It gave several possible reasons for the discrepancies. Cities might have contracts with the MRF that vary in what they want collected based on their recycling goals, what markets are available, or other regional factors. City employees “might see information that was on another city’s website, and they post it to their own without talking directly to the MRF.” Or cities might typically deal with other stakeholders, such as the haulers, but might not have the same open lines of communication with the MRF.
MassDEP’s Nash says her state’s cart tagging program is only successful because all the stakeholders were on board and communicating clearly from the beginning. “You have to bring everybody to the table. The MRF, the hauler, public works, and even elected officials,” Nash says. Before launching the statewide recycling campaign, MassDEP convened a series of meetings with all seven of Massachusetts’ MRFs and asked them directly what they did and did not want in the recycling bins. The state does not have authority to mandate what MRFs can and cannot take, but it did want a consensus from the MRFs so it could publicize the information through the Recycle Smart MA program, she says. The MRFs also provided data on contamination to their municipal customers that implement the tagging program. The program required close coordination between each municipality, which hired its own cart inspectors, and its haulers, which provided their pickup schedules so inspectors could tag the carts before each collection truck arrived.
Hedlund says her organization’s bin labels aren’t effective if a community’s MRF, hauler, and municipality disagree about what should go in the bin. Recycle Across America meets with each of these entities before supplying the labels to iron out any misunderstandings that can cause contamination issues. When rolling out the program in one major city, for example, the municipal government told RAA it wanted plastic flower pots on the list of accepted material, but when Hedlund met with the community’s MRF, “they said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Communities shouldn’t wait until they’re rolling out a new recycling campaign to speak regularly with their MRF and haulers, Marshall says. “Cities, haulers, and MRFs should have regular conversations throughout the year. Who is in charge of education? What tactical education points need to be made? Does everyone understand who is at fault if contamination gets to the MRF, and how does it get resolved or paid for?” he asks.
MRFs also can be proactive about these issues instead of waiting for contamination to come to their door, Getter says. Balcones has quarterly meetings with Austin officials and its haulers, which both are responsible for educating residents about what goes in the bin, to discuss any problems and update each other on current markets for the materials. These entities are all motivated to communicate because reducing contamination saves everyone money, he adds. Balcones fines haulers when they send contaminated loads, “and what we charge is exponentially greater than what it costs to bury [contamination] at the landfill because we have handling charges, and it affects our production,” he says.
In Rhode Island, saving money is a factor, too. Rhode Island Resource Recovery does not charge cities to drop off recycling at the MRF, but it charges $47 a ton when it rejects a load. “If it gets rejected, we find out immediately, and the scalehouse operator sends photos [to the hauler] of exactly what the problem is,” Coventry’s Soares says. Such rejections are rare, she notes, and the rejection notices aren’t the only times Coventry hears from the MRF. “They are always available to answer questions for us, and we talk quite a bit.”
Changing market conditions
Changing markets for recycled commodities have forced MRFs and cities to take a hard look at how they recycle and revisit the list of items they accept for recycling. In 2017, China announced it would stop accepting some recyclables—most notably mixed paper and postconsumer plastics—and impose strict quality standards on others. The changes have reverberated through the recycling industry and had several effects on the residential recycling system. Before China announced its new restrictions, many MRFs competing for municipal contracts felt the pressure to accept a wider range of items than their competitors, Nash says. “They were more likely to agree to a broader range of items, especially when larger municipal customers asked,” she says. Back then, she explains, “there was more elasticity in the market and greater tolerance for items that didn’t necessarily conform to a strict bale specification.” Once Chinese markets tightened, MRFs had to either become pickier or do more sorting to keep up with the higher quality standards, she says.
MRFs also are getting lower prices for the commodities they produce, Hypolite says. Before China’s policy changes, she estimates the Rhode Island MRF could get about $93 a ton for mixed paper. A few months ago, “we literally had to pay to get rid of it” because the MRF avoids landfilling marketable materials to preserve landfill space, she says. This creates tension with communities that once relied on that MRF’s profit-sharing model, which returns 50% of profits it makes from commodity sales. “A decade ago, we were generating nearly $2 million in profit,” Hypolite says of the MRF. “We haven’t turned a profit since 2015 and [have] operated at a loss for the last three years.”
In this post-China market, MRFs need to insulate themselves even more from market fluctuations, Getter says. “MRFs need processing or tipping fees to survive. The value of materials are so depressed right now, so you have to have an associated tipping fee that covers MRF costs, regardless of market conditions.” Balcones charges a tipping/processing fee for all materials and also has a commodity value-sharing mechanism in its contracts, meaning it shares a percentage of the revenue it gets from selling the commodities. “But when prices [drop] to a certain level, the first obligation is to make certain there’s enough revenue to support our activities every day,” he says. Contract negotiations are a good time to revisit the state of the scrap commodity markets, any problems the MRF might be having, and any requests the city might have, Getter says. Balcones and the City of Austin also discuss what commodities they will accept in residential recycling, and they must both agree to add or subtract a commodity from the list.
Contract negotiations are a critical time “to be transparent and have an honest conversation,” Marshall adds. “When markets were better, it was easier to say yes” to items that might be harder to process or find markets for. “But when it’s more expensive to process, and MRFs are not getting the revenue they need, the MRF needs to [discuss it] with the city.” If the city wants the MRF to start accepting a certain material, “it has to have a real need or interest in requesting that a particular commodity get accepted. They can reach out and ask where the local market is to make it work.”
Marshall says MRFs and municipalities can also hash out educational responsibilities in the contracts. Some contracts already have provisions such as requiring the MRF or municipality to spend a certain amount on education, send residents a mailer, or provide a MRF tour for schools. “These actions can be impactful,” he says, but contracts with more explicit and targeted language can help achieve better results. Some examples include “send a mailer twice a year with a targeted message such as ‘don’t put plastic bags in the bin,’” or “post once a week on social media with a specific message about contamination,” he says.
ISRI’s MRF Council is considering developing resources that MRFs can use in their negotiations with municipalities. The project is likely to include an operating cost guide and a model contract template MRFs could use when proposing services. The Solid Waste Association of North America (Silver Spring, Md.) and the National Waste & Recycling Association (Arlington, Va.) have also published guidelines for creating contracts between MRFs and municipalities.
Cities, haulers, and recyclers that work together to educate the public will move the needle on contamination, Marshall says. It might take some experimentation. “They have to identify what works and what doesn’t, then tweak their approaches and try again,” he says. Getter says Balcones and other MRFs will keep using an array of solutions to get the incoming recycling stream cleaner each time. “I think we need to just keep plugging away on education, and certainly hope for better markets. But I’m an optimist at heart,” he says.
Megan Quinn is senior reporter/writer for Scrap.