Each year millions of Americans recycle, and each year cities spend millions of dollars removing items that shouldn't be in the recycling stream.
Last week Phoenix launched the Recycle Clean Phoenix campaign to educate residents about what can and cannot be recycled. The city spends more than $1 million annually cleaning out contaminates in the stream.
Plastic grocery bags are the most common item in the bin that shouldn’t be there, and they can be the most detrimental. “When they get caught [in the recycling sorter], they have to shut the whole system down and manually pull them out," says Tom Waldeck, executive director for Keep Phoenix Beautiful.
Phoenix has been dealing with these issues for decades. It was the first city in the country to introduce single-stream recycling, where all recyclables are put into one container.
Waldeck says that while single stream makes recycling incredibly easy, it also means that people will often recycle the wrong things, which can cost cities a great deal of money. “People just don’t know,” he says, “and that’s the goal of the campaign, to educate people to recycle better and not contaminate the stream.”
But Phoenix is not alone when it comes to dealing with contamination issues.
The City of San Francisco has the highest diversion rate in the country at 77 percent. That means more than three-fourths of city waste is diverted into some form of reuse, reduction or recycling. But Robert Reed of Recology, San Francisco’s recycling service, says recycling is never without its problems.
“Recycling and compost collection is an imperfect business. We always have to deal with some level of incorrect materials in different bins,” he says. “To minimize such issues, we undertake a tremendous amount of customer outreach, which takes many forms.” These forms include providing flyers, posters, brochures and presentations to the community.
Reed says the key to increase recycling will always be making it as convenient as possible. That’s why Recology offers 18 different reuse and recycling programs throughout the city, including curbside pickup of compost, tires and window glass.
In Madison, Wisc., the recycling program works like this: Residents put their recyclables into a curbside cart. Contents of the cart are collected and the material is sent to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). The city pays a tipping fee at the facility and is then reimbursed 80 percent of the sale of the recycled material.
Madison's Recycling Coordinator, George Dreckmann, says that through September of this year, 1,417 tons of material has been sent through the recycling center and "a vast majority is stuff that shouldn't have been in the carts." Meaning the city has lost about $19,625, which is the difference between the tipping fee and the amount received from the sale of the material.
Dreckmann says the city tries to educate the public through yearly mailings, resources on its website and various avenues of advertising. It even leaves instructions on carts when something non-recyclable is found inside.
Dreckmann says there are two big consequences to improper recycling: the waste of resources and the cost to the taxpayer.
"It's a two-way battle," he explains. "There's stuff that shouldn't be in the cart, but there's also recyclables that end up in the trash."
In a recent report, the city found that 14 percent of the material in Madison's trash was actually items that could have been recycled, mixed paper accounting for 5.6 percent of that waste. And with an ever-decreasing education budget, Dreckmann says it's becoming harder to reach people.
Moving south, Atlanta recently implemented a pilot program called ReCART (Rewards for Collecting All Recyclables Together), a RecycleBank program aimed at providing monetary incentive for recycling, to 10,000 of its residents to see if citywide implementation is viable.
That's just one of many things that the city is doing to increase a recycling rate that Mary Harrington, program manager for the Atlanta Recycling Program, says is "getting better every day." The city also educates residents with public meetings, flyers and commercials, and Harrington says she personally responds to email questions.
While Harrington says she can't put a financial cost on improper recycling, the facility where Atlanta's waste goes reports a 7 percent contamination rate for the city's recyclables. "The city isn't getting penalized for this contamination," she says.
Las Vegas takes an entirely different approach. Republic Services of Southern Nevada, which provides recycling services to Las Vegas, recently began a single-stream pilot program to 40,000 homes in the City of North Las Vegas and 20,000 homes in the City of Henderson.
While the recycling rate has increased from 3.5 percent during the original dual stream programs to more than 25 percent in the new single-stream commingled programs, Tracy Skenandore, area director of Marketing for Republic Services, says her company - not the cities involved in the program - is responsible for recycling education and correcting recycling mistakes.
"We go to great lengths to educate people," Skenandore says. They even go as far as to embed images of accepted recyclables on all of their bins.
It's that investment in education that Skenandore says makes their recycling stream fairly clean, with a less than 10 percent contamination rate. While she couldn't comment on the financial implications of this contamination, she says Republic Services will continue to spend money on education to further decrease the contamination rate.