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As part of a recycling audit in 2018 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Bradley Kelley and his team scattered materials from residents’ recycling bins across a table and placed them in the appropriately labeled bins, which included diapers, nonrecyclable plastic and paper, organics, glass, ferrous metals and other metals.

Last year, Lancaster’s single-stream recyclables were comprised of more than 30 percent contamination, says Kathryn Sandoe, chief commercial officer of Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA).

“As a result of the significant market shift that occurred in 2018, LCSWMA seized the opportunity to overhaul the curbside recycling program in Lancaster County,” Sandoe says. “We recognized something had to change. Recycling as people once knew it would never be the same. Rather than wait for others to blaze new trails, we took the bold step to be one of the first to reimagine a recycling program that’s sustainable, meaning it balances the environmental, fiscal and social needs of our community.”

In the summer of 2018, the county launched its $200,000 Recycle Right initiative along with a new set of guidelines for its municipal recycling program. The county calls its new material list the Big Four: old corrugated containers (OCC), plastic bottles and jugs with necks, metal food and beverage cans, and glass jars and bottles. Sandoe says these materials have strong domestic end markets. Then, the county worked with Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. (GBB), McLean, Virginia, to conduct an audit of incoming single-stream recyclables at the start of the program and one year after its implementation in 2019. Compared with 2018, Sandoe says the presence of mixed residential paper, plastic film and tanglers in the stream decreased and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) increased.

“They reduced the amount of diapers—that was a big contaminant—and the amount of newspapers because they opened a newspaper-only drop-off area,” says Kelley, who is senior project engineer at GBB and works as a consultant for the county.

“Municipal recycling is at a significant crossroads,” he adds. “It’s not really a crisis. It has to change, and that’s OK. You have to be adaptable to changing scenarios or you’re not going to survive.”

Scaling back

Across the country, municipalities are facing the reality that their recycling streams are too contaminated. For example, the city of Oregon, Ohio, ended its recycling program after city leaders learned of its more than 30 percent contamination rate.

Many other recycling programs are scaling back the items they accept in curbside bins in response to growing contamination. The goal is to get to about 10 percent contamination, Kelley says.

“From just about everything we’ve heard and seen, if municipalities aren’t stopping recycling, which most places aren’t, they’re reducing what they’re accepting,” Kelley says. “They’re trying to simplify it. They’re trying to reduce the total contamination, and they’re also trying to reduce ‘wishcycling.’”

"The good that’s going to come out of this is that we’re going to have North American processing capacity again. There has to be this survival mentality to get to that point.” – Bradley Kelley, senior project engineer, Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc.

Sandoe says Lancaster County’s public education campaign included a concentrated effort to create awareness and educate people on what happened with the industry and why wishful recycling is harmful. She adds, “Most of our interactions with the public have been positive; however, many people are still wrestling with the emotions of a new behavior they feel is wrong, backward or environmentally unfriendly. The negative emotions associated with not recycling what they used to continues to be a significant barrier to long-term behavior change.”

Sandoe says phase two of the county’s education initiative will “clarify, affirm and reframe the narrative about recycling.” She adds that the county anticipates conducting audits annually for the next few years to continue measuring contamination.

Other municipalities are also working to clarify misperceptions about recycling.

When Juri Freeman was the recycling manager for the city and county of Denver, he says a misperception persisted that Colorado was doing very well in terms of recycling and sustainability, when in fact the state’s recycling rate was well below the national average.

“One of the challenges was relaying this message to folks and getting them to understand that we really aren’t there in terms of recycling,” says Freeman, who is now a senior consultant with Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Resource Recycling Systems (RRS). “Denver had really good data. It just wasn’t public. We made a really concerted effort to share the data—our recycling rate compared with the national recycling rate—publicly using infographics and pictures. We used a lot of different marketing channels to do it.”

Denver residents also have the misperception that recycling is free, which Freeman says he sees in other parts of the county, as well. He says when the county learned half of its material stream was comprised of organics and launched an organics recycling program for $10 a month, it was a challenge to implement the program and grow participation because of the cost.

Workers conduct a recycling audit in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

New industry standards

While municipalities are “taking an active role on the contamination side” and facing other complexities, Kelley says material recovery facility (MRF) operators are becoming realistic about rejecting loads and assessing fees for contamination, in part because of high quality standards imposed by consumers of recyclables.

“In the past, a lot of [MRFs] said, ‘We’ll deal with it,’” Kelley says. “That’s not acceptable anymore. Most [MRFs] should have the power to reject a load that shows up and is half waste. If they don’t, they need to negotiate it.”

He adds, “That’s not always easy. There has to be some shared risk, which a lot of municipalities are very averse to. Recycling is not like any other business out there because materials are always coming and the market is always changing, and I know it’s very difficult for many municipalities to deal with that.”

Kelley says municipalities should conduct material audits to measure performance at the MRF and to share progress from public education efforts.

While these changes have been difficult for municipalities and MRFs, Kelley says, “The good that’s going to come out of this is that we’re going to have North American processing capacity again. There has to be this survival mentality to get to that point.”

Developing end markets

The goal of many municipalities is to ensure the material collected curbside is marketable. Freeman says he helps manage a state-funded incentive program called Colorado NextCycle, which is designed to encourage businesses to make products from recyclables. Through the program, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) helps identify teams with ideas for developing or improving recycling end markets in the state.

During Colorado NextCycle’s first season in 2018-2019, the state selected nine teams to participate in the business incubator program, which included a two-day accelerator workshop and a pitch session to an audience of recycling professionals and investors. The nine teams also had the opportunity to apply for an end market development grant, which seeks to provide up to $3 million in funding to anyone interested in creating or expanding end markets for recyclables and organic materials in Colorado, CDPHE says.

“When we started NextCycle, we looked at it from an investor standpoint,” Freeman says. “We want these businesses to have success in the long term and to be able to make money, so what are the pinch points in our supply chains in Colorado that we need to address?”

This idea also was brought to life in entrepreneur Chris Graff’s NYC Curb-To-Market Challenge, which offered $500,000 for the best business plan to manufacture products from New York City’s recyclables to sell locally. Anthropocene. Design, a circular economy design consultancy, and Argentina-based plastic film recycler Arqlite each received a $250,000 investment in 2019.

“It takes a long time to get these investments going, but I think there’s a lot of positivity around this push for domestic and local end markets,” Freeman says. “I think folks are also starting to realize that there’s a cost of collection and processing materials, and recycling is a viable and necessary system that keeps a lot of material out of the landfill and the ocean.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. issue of Recycling Today. The author is the digital editor for Recycling Today and can be contacted at kmaile@gie.net.