Aug. 16, 2016, 10:05 a.m. Central Daylight Time: “We have a problem.”

It’s a phrase nobody wants to hear. It was definitely a phrase that Joyce Williams, recycling administrator for the city of Memphis, Tennessee, wasn’t keen to hear from her material recovery facility (MRF) in the midst of a multiphase, multiyear cart roll-out. And it was particularly unwelcome given that she had at her disposal just 1.5 staffers to keep recycling operations running smoothly for a thriving community of 650,000 people.

Deep breath. Pause.

“OK, what’s the issue?”

Based on a visual inspection at the MRF, contamination levels on four curbside routes with new recycling carts had rocketed to a staggering 50 percent. Williams knew her MRF contract had a provision for rejection of any load with more than 8 percent contamination based on visual inspection. She also knew that she suddenly had a new, pressing project.

Having built a strong relationship with her MRF and having done her homework on fighting contamination, Williams pushed her initial panic aside. A plan started forming in the back of her head, and she regained her normal can-do attitude. Another deep breath. Time to get to work.

Making the transition

With an eye toward creating a more convenient recycling service for residents and greater safety for collection crews, Memphis was gearing up for a three-year, multiphase transition from dual-stream curbside bins to single-stream curbside carts. Each phase would involve distribution of 25,000 to 40,000 carts, ultimately reaching approximately 174,000 households by the end of 2017.

This meant in-depth planning with all players in the system—buy-in from city decision-makers; container procurement with a cart vendor; change in collection with the local haulers (both private and city run); communication with residents; and, of course, processing considerations with the longstanding MRF partner, ReCommunity, which is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Williams and her teammate, a part-time outreach expert named Amanda Fryer, met with ReCommunity early and often, covering all the bases:

  • contract – They explored new options for incentives, profit sharing and fees for contamination. In the end, the existing contract was already well-geared for both parties.
  • quantity – Upgrading from bins to carts can boost recovery by 40 percent to 50 percent, so they made sure the MRF was ready to handle the additional incoming material.
  • yes list – Seeking to make the most of the extra room that carts offer for recyclables, they expanded their fairly traditional material mix to include all plastic containers and more categories of aluminum.
  • no list – They discussed the most worrisome prohibitive items (contaminants) to target resident communication appropriately. Full plastic bags were called out as a top offender; otherwise, the new single-stream sorting equipment would suffer. (This concern is consistent across much of the nation. The Recycling Partnership recently surveyed MRFs representing more than 70 percent of U.S. processing capacity, and plastic film/plastic bags topped the list of undesirable contaminants.)

Once all of the details were in place, the city began the first phase of cart roll-outs. Throughout the next 18 months, carts were systematically delivered, recovery increased and everything went more or less according to plan. Williams maintained steady communication with ReCommunity, tracking quantities and staying abreast of any changes to the material stream.

She also studied how to fight contamination in the carts, meeting with The Recycling Partnership about evolving techniques, available resources and the range of potential results.

Back to the issue at hand

Four routes with contamination issues, limited staff availability and immediate need: This is not an uncommon scenario for many communities.

Williams and Fryer jumped into action. First they held an in-depth call with ReCommunity, through which they discovered that the top problem materials were items in plastic bags, with honorable mention going to clothing, tanglers, food and liquids.

With that knowledge in hand, they fired up the off-white city cruiser and hit the streets to investigate. Driving and walking the problem routes, they sought out root causes for poor quality. They peeked into carts, watched collection trucks and talked to residents on all four routes. This is no simple task when routes can average 1,000 homes each. But the Memphis team knew they couldn’t solve the problem through standard education to residents alone and needed to go out on the routes to learn more.

They sought answers to the following questions:

  • Were garbage and recycling carts accidentally being collected in the same truck? Nope. Next question …
  • Were residents aware that bagged items were a problem? They asked everyone they came across. For the most part, the news came as a surprise to people. Now we’re getting somewhere.
  • Anything else? Why was there so much garbage in some of the recycling carts? Did residents need more disposal capacity? Were they all cleaning out their attics? More questions, more interactions with residents. Maybe …
  • Did every household have a working garbage cart? Eureka! Turns out 54 of the homes had broken garbage carts and were using recycling carts to replace them. Another opportunity for improvement.

Plan of action

Between the insights gained on the routes and advice from The Recycling Partnership, the team had all the information it needed to craft a plan. Here’s how it went:

1. Fix or replace all broken garbage carts on the problem routes.

2. Mail an oversized postcard with a simple “no bagged items” message to every household on the problem routes. The city matched those routes to existing postal carrier routes, taking advantage of a much reduced delivery rate. Fryer supported the messaging through timely social media posts.

3. Print “Oops” and “Thank You” stickers and deploy them across the problem routes by walking each route on collection day, tipping every lid and leaving feedback. This required more staff time than the city had readily available; luckily Williams and Fryer are resourceful. They pulled in volunteers from the University of Memphis and the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, and with their band of volunteers covered the problem routes for two straight weeks.

4. Measure results. They tracked progress through regular conversations with ReCommunity. After only two weeks, contamination levels dropped to an acceptable range. Williams also spoke with collection drivers to capture additional insights.

“Honestly, I couldn’t fathom that it worked so well,” Williams says. “The fact that such a small amount of effort made such a difference was unbelievable to me. We haven’t had any problems since. Even the drivers are amazed.”

The Recycling Partnership’s single-stream carts infograph

In other words, a staff of 1.5 solved contamination inside of a single month.

“Overall it was a big win for us,” Williams says. “The volume we’re collecting on the targeted routes is roughly the same as before our interventions, and if you consider the contamination we reduced, then the overall recovery increased.”

Do it yourself

Cart-based collection systems clearly benefit communities with more efficient collections and more recyclables. However, communities and haulers just can’t “set it and forget it.” It takes regular attention and strong communication with key stakeholders to provide good quality material.

Contamination is an inefficient use of recycling capacity, a drag on infrastructure and an extra fiscal burden on the entire recycling system. Communities, haulers and MRFs can work together to take the fight to those misplaced materials, and a number of examples, like Memphis, can be followed.

The Recycling Partnership and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have just completed a year-long project to build and test a contamination crushing program. As in Memphis, key results from pilot testing in Massachusetts include a drop in overall contamination, a decrease in the number of contaminated carts and a notable reduction in the most problematic contaminant (dropping the percent of items in plastic bags from 43 percent to 15 percent of the contamination by weight).

Free guides, downloadable artwork and related resources on launching a cart recycling program or improving the quality of the recycling stream can be found at http://tools.recyclingpartnership.org.

The authors are the communications and technical assistance lead, respectively, with The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, a national nonprofit organization. Additional information is available at http://recycling partnership.org. A version of this story first ran in the January 2017 issue of Recycling Today, a sister publication of Waste Today.