The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, describes its All In On Recycling initiative as a set of programs designed to improve recycling in communities across the United States.
In previous decades, achieving higher landfill diversion rates was considered the priority target in the minds of many municipal recycling program leaders. However, a combination of circumstances—including the disappearance of buyers in China who had been willing to sort out mixed recyclables and a decline in household education spending to keep unwelcome materials out of recycling bins—has caused a shift in focus.
While high volumes of collected paper, board, plastic and metal remain an important goal, so too does “learning how to become a better recycler,” in the words of The Recycling Partnership. This focus is why the organization now says education is a mandatory part of its grants that help pay for collection carts for municipal recycling programs.
Gearing up for collection
Landfill diversion of household materials cannot be achieved unless they are first placed in a residential recycling bin, which is why The Recycling Partnership continues to fund the availability of carts in communities in the U.S.
When recycling programs were focusing on volume over the previous two decades, collection bins grew in size, with wheeled bins with of up to 65 gallons in collection capacity replacing smaller, hand-carried plastic bins.
Although quality competes with volume as the top priority, the larger carts appear to have retained favor in the residential collection sector. In 2019, the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO), which serves the Columbus, Ohio, region, selected 65-gallon carts as its containers of choice.
“Last year, SWACO successfully applied for, and received, a grant from The Recycling Partnership to help five central Ohio communities upgrade their existing recycling bins to 65-gallon carts, resulting in new recycling carts for 38,000 households,” says SWACO Executive Director Ty Marsh.
Marsh says the Recycling Cart Grant program resulted in “a very significant decrease in the cost of recycling carts to communities.” SWACO’s own initiative combined a $22.50 per cart grant directly from SWACO with the additional $7 per cart grant received through The Recycling Partnership’s 2019 cart grant program, “resulting in more than 65 percent of the communities’ cost to purchase recycling carts,” says Marsh.
Says SWACO Director of Innovation & Programs Kyle O’Keefe, “For a community of 10,000 households, this resulted in a combined cart grant of about $295,000, reducing the community’s cost to about $155,000 of the total $450,000 purchase price” for carts.
Even with a renewed emphasis on the quality of collections, Cody Marshall, chief community strategy officer of The Recycling Partnership, says larger carts such as the 65-gallon ones selected by SWACO can be the right choice.
“Moving from bins or bags to carts, or starting a new curbside program with carts, is a key way to increase the amount of recyclables that a municipal recycling program can collect,” says Marshall. “In fact, it can increase [collection volumes] as much as 100 pounds per household [annually]” when using carts instead of bags or smaller bins, says Marshall.
Collection cart spending numbers offered by Marshall are similar to those cited by SWACO. The carts, according to Marshall, can be a major part of a municipal recycling budget.
“The average cost of a large, lidded cart with assembly and distribution is roughly $50 per cart,” says Marshall. “For a city with 30,000 homes, the capital cost can be $1.5 million.” Thus, he continues, “Providing funding for curbside carts significantly offsets a city’s capital costs to roll out a new cart program.”
Another consideration on cart spending—which has grown in importance during the COVID-19 epidemic—is selecting carts that are compatible with automated collection. “Collecting recycling in carts can decrease operational costs through automation, thus increasing route efficiency, protecting workers from potential health issues, and lowering worker injury,” states Marshall.
Quality in, revenue in
Collecting recyclables from households requires minimizing expenses. Maintaining quality standards is critical in defraying those costs by yielding desirable streams of relatively clean paper, cardboard, plastic and metal.
As the developing world, and the People’s Republic of China in particular, has shut its doors on baled materials that require additional sorting, operators of material recovery facilities (MRFs) have increasingly informed municipal collection program leaders that times (and market conditions) have changed.
The previous two or three years have seen one municipality or solid waste agency after another reel in shock when they enter into negotiations with MRF operators to renew or change their processing contracts.
Although MRF operators can and do invest in additional sorting technology, they are fairly unanimous in saying what is placed into household bins must change significantly. In response to that circumstance, the All In On Recycling effort also includes an educational component directed at reducing unwanted materials and contamination.
“Education is a mandatory part of our granting program,” says Marshall. “Confusion about what goes into the recycling bin is the No. 1 reason for increased contamination in our recycling stream.”
As it did with SWACO, the Partnership includes what O’Keefe calls “a simple and easy-to-understand cart packet [that] is created and delivered with each cart to help residents put the right material in the cart from the start.”
"Moving to carts ... is a key way to increase the amount of recyclables that a municipal recycling program can collect.” –Cody Marshall, chief community strategy officer of The Recycling Partnership
Continues O’Keefe, “By notifying residents of what they can and can’t recycle in multiple ways—through a mailer, an ‘oops’ tag on the recycling cart, on the city’s website, social media, and more—a community can help to reduce consumer confusion and decrease the amount of trash going into the recycling.”
In Ohio, SWACO has supplemented the initial materials provided by The Recycling Partnership. “SWACO has a ‘Recycle Right, Make a Difference’ education program where we distributed proper recycling information to thousands of households in Franklin County, Ohio, each year,” says Andrew Booker, a programs manager with the agency.
An educated public can make a significant difference in both the volume and quality of collected materials. Improving both volume and quality can lead to bigger revenues, especially for materials with an established market value like office paper, old newspapers (ONP), old corrugated containers (OCC), aluminum used beverage containers (UBCs), steel food cans, and clear No. 1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic beverage bottles.
“As a result of having new carts, combined with the educational efforts, we saw a 15 percent increase in the available recyclables being captured in two of the communities studied,” says Booker.
Booker says the combination of efforts that included Recycle Right educational materials led to a documented “60 percent reduction in recyclables” being placed into the bagged solid waste stream.
The right outcome
Marshall says while the education campaign has been critical, the positive effects of the collection carts themselves should not be underestimated. SWACO’s experience in Ohio is indicative of that, he says.
“In central Ohio, the All In On Recycling challenge enabled 38,000 families across five communities to switch from 18-gallon bins to 65-gallon wheeled, lidded carts, which can collect more materials, are easier for residents to take to the curb, and can be more efficiently collected,” he concludes. The wheeled carts also reduce litter because their lidded tops prevent materials from flying out, he adds.
The additional materials collected included those with the highest value, says Marshall, and those ultimately used by companies that fund The Recycling Partnership, such as the American Beverage Association, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Keurig-Dr. Pepper, Amazon and Procter & Gamble.
“A unique study conducted in two of the SWACO communities found because of the switch, 22 percent more plastic bottles and 111 percent more aluminum cans were captured with the carts, and the number of homes that recycled 60 percent more of their recyclable materials rose by 42 percent.”
For municipal and solid waste agency officials seeking to improve landfill diversion rates, those are figures likely to catch their attention.