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The success of every recycling program hinges on the quality of materials being generated. While material recovery facility (MRF) operators are constantly looking for ways to advance their sorting and recovery processes, lowering contamination rates starts at the consumer level.

Since 2003, the Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, has been working to improve the recycling supply chain in the U.S. As part of its mission, the organization promotes access to recycling throughout the country through the adoption of cart-based recycling programs. According to the Recycling Partnership, switching to a cart-based system can help communities save money, improve the safety of its collection workers, divert material from landfill, bolster participation rates and be more environmentally friendly.

Adopting cart-based systems

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For municipalities without a recycling program, or for those relying on a bag- or bin-based system, switching to a cart-based system can be the first step in keeping recyclables out of landfill. According to Cody Marshall, vice president of technical assistance at the Recycling Partnership, the organization uses a multifaceted approach of logistical, marketing and financial support to help communities get up and running with cart-based programs.

“We have a grant that is currently open for cities, counties and authorities to purchase recycling carts. This grant includes funding for carts and education as well as technical support and graphic design to help with the cart transition,” Marshall says. “With support from Coca-Cola, we will be opening up a grant round for recycling carts for communities located on the coast and/or major waterways in the U.S. We have ongoing communication in communities that currently don’t have curbside recycling or are still using bins or bags to help with economic modeling to see the full benefit of cart-based recycling collection. We also have the cart implementation guide, ‘A Guide to Implementing a Cart-Based Recycling Program,’ on our website and free downloadable images to help with a cart rollout.”

Through the Recycling Partnership’s funding initiatives, almost 433,000 new carts have been introduced in the U.S. over the last four years.

According to Marshall, switching to carts can make financial sense for communities for several reasons.

“The financial savings can come from a number of different places, specifically if the municipality is currently collecting in bins or bags,” Marshall explains. “One, the reduction of workers compensation insurance and claims can be dramatic. When I managed curbside collection in Orange County, North Carolina, we were bin-based, and I would have at least one to two people out due to injuries every year. While they are out, you have to find replacement drivers. As you can imagine, these costs add up quickly.”

Marshall says that carts also help save money through the use of compaction trucks. While bag- or bin-based source-separated or dual-stream materials are collected loose and put into trucks without being crushed, the compaction that is necessary with cart-based collections allows drivers to pick up more homes’ recyclables on a route, which means fewer trucks and employees on the road.

Carts also provide an avenue for residents to divert materials, rather than throw would-be recyclables out in the trash. Reduced curbside garbage volume equates to lower landfill and waste collection costs for cities.

“We see that cart-based collection can increase the volume collected by an average bin-based program by 125 pounds per household, per year,” Marshall says. “That material was in the garbage cart before, that means the city will have less garbage to pay for to throw away. In communities that are responsible for paying for their garbage going to a landfill, that is a big savings. For every 100 tons of garbage that doesn’t have to be tipped at a landfill, with a fee of $47 per ton let’s say, that’s a savings of $4,700 dollars. That adds up.”

Marshall cautions that while the cost differential in switching to cart-based systems can be profound, the savings on tip fees are not as clear for communities that have open-market systems where residents pay the hauler directly for garbage and recycling collection. In these instances, communities have to consider the merits of switching the way their recyclables are collected based on their specific contracts.

Good for workers, good for the environment

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Besides helping communities save money, switching to cart-based programs can be instrumental in improving driver safety, Marshall says.

“I think we all agree safety for the drivers is the No. 1 priority,” Marshall says. “When communities use bins, drivers are getting in and out of the truck frequently, which can cause injury stepping in and out of the cab multiple times a day. Manually picking full bins of recyclables up, twisting while picking up and carrying the material to the truck can cause serious strains on a driver’s back and body. Lastly, fully automated trucks that collect carts keep the drivers out of traffic, which helps further reduce the chance for injury.”

Since cart-based systems often equate to fewer collection vehicles needed to complete pickups, introducing carts can help decrease the number of drivers on the road. This translates to less probability of on-the-job injuries or accidents, while also helping communities cut down on vehicle emissions.

“Cart-based recycling increases the amount of recyclables collected,” Marshall says. “David Alloway with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality always says that the purpose of recycling is to reduce pollution and conserve resources. The more we recycle, the more we reduce pollution and conserve resources. It’s directly connected to greenhouse gas, water and energy savings. The 433,000 carts we have deployed over the past four years equates to 164,000 metric tons of CO2 (carbon dioxide) avoided.”

Getting buy-in

Most people know that they should recycle, but Marshall says something about the switch to carts reinforces this idea in citizens’ heads.

“Carts do two things: One, residents that currently recycle start to recycle more, and; two, residents that don’t currently recycle start using the cart,” Marshall says. “When you roll the cart out to every home, it re-engages residents with the program—almost like a big education piece about recycling delivered to the home. So, if people haven’t been aware of the program in the past, a new cart delivered to the home certainly captures their attention. We also find that the majority of residents prefer to roll or push a cart rather than carry bins to the end of a driveway.”

Although the introduction of a cart-based system can help re-engage residents to recycle, more needs to be done to help individuals make smarter choices when it comes to diversion, Marshall says.

“Unfortunately, I feel like we [as an industry] have treated recycling carts just like garbage carts, meaning we deployed them and figured we could just come by and collect them weekly or every other week with little engagement with residents,” Marshall says. “For example, I’ve seen some communities that have bought recycling carts that are the exact color as the garbage cart, just a different size. That’s difficult for anyone to understand and use properly.”

To further help reduce contamination and promote participation in recycling programs, Marshall says communities need to be persistent and take initiative to start a dialogue with residents on what should and what shouldn’t be recycled.

“In short, limited or no engagement with residents is a key factor [leading to contamination],” Marshall says. “Residents need to continue to be informed. With engagement tactics that the Recycling Partnership deployed in Chicago and Atlanta, for example, we saw contamination in carts decrease 32 and 57 percent, respectively. Large communities that use carts for single-stream recycling can have contamination levels less than 10 percent, and that is because they have dedicated people and budgets to focus on the program.”

Simplifying the recycling process in a way that can be easily adopted is a proven method of helping increase participation.

“I think communities throughout the country and the recycling industry have built the infrastructure to make it easy for residents to recycle, but now consistent information is the biggest need,” Marshall explains. “One annual postcard with information regarding what to recycle, and a small list of no more than five things not to recycle, can go a long way. Cart tags that engage residents at the place they recycle have also been proven to be one of the best ways to inform residents what to recycle.”

Moving recycling forward with carts

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Beyond educating the consumer, new ways of assessing contamination have entered the market that can help promote healthy recycling practices.

“New measuring methodologies through cart-based capture rates are really exciting,” Marshall says. “They are a fantastic way to understand the waste and recycling stream. They have been so much more dynamic than standard waste audits. We can start to see specifically what contaminants are in the carts by weight, and by occurrence, and allow us to see generation of each commodity.”

With end markets for recyclables getting more difficult to find, Marshall says the recycling community would be wise to come together to make municipal programs more robust, efficient and affordable.

“Local governments are typically the entities responsible for funding or guiding the collection of recyclables and waste,” Marshall says. “It is in their best interest to provide quality material to the marketplace to sustain a long-term thriving waste diversion program, but they need to help establish and operate strong programs and educate their residents accordingly.

“However, while the industry relies on communities to provide quality material, they never have enough people or money to focus solely on their recycling program,” Marshall continues. “Communities have a complex management system with a ton of important priorities, such as fire, police, libraries, streets, schools, etc. If we as the recycling industry want good, quality material for our businesses, and that material we want [originates] in the home, we have to help the community recycling programs with funding and other resources. It’s critical that the broader industry supports local governments to clean up material at the curb. We all benefit when each stakeholder in the system is performing at a high level.”

The author is the editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.