You can’t beat industry conferences for getting the pulse of the waste sector. Having just come back from three days in Boston attending SWANAPalooza 2019, one of the topics that took center stage was important, if not unexpected—recycling.

Attendees and speakers alike discussed the need for new investments in equipment, producer responsibility, and the pursuit of new markets to help keep recycling viable.

But the idea that stood out to me, which doesn’t get as much press, is the need for a little tough love.

The Recycling Partnership, based in Falls Church, Virginia, led an interactive session during the conference titled “Workshop on Tools and Approaches to Fight Contamination in your Community Recycling Program.” As part of the session, the presenters outlined the five ways to fight contamination at the curb: education, enforcement, harmonization (or coordinating regional messaging), cart tagging and outreach.

While more thorough and comprehensive messaging is important via education, harmonization and outreach, sometimes a push to comply with recycling protocols through enforcement and tagging may be the jolt residents need to change behavior.

At one point during the session, the audience, comprised of many who lead the recycling efforts in their respective communities, was asked if they’ve seen their outreach fall on deaf ears despite an abundance of mailers, radio commercials and notices sent out to the public regarding what goes into the blue bin.

Nearly every hand in the room went up.

“There are some of your residents who you’re not going to be able to reach with education alone. You’re going to need enforcement at times, and it’s just about ensuring compliance. Sometimes enforcement can come in the form of financial penalties, policies and mandates, but the key is it has to have teeth, and it needs to be consistent,” said Alita Kane, a community liaison at The Recycling Partnership.

While proactive education is critical, sometimes enforcement may not be the worst thing to serve as the impetus to change behavior.

Case in point: The Recycling Partnership released the results of a recent study targeting 4,400 households in Atlanta. During the testing period, the city engaged in outreach efforts and examined the contents of carts at the curb, placing a tag and rejecting those that showed signs of contamination.

After eight weeks, contamination in the test area fell 57 percent, the overall capture rate of recyclables increased from 52 percent to 66 percent, and the number of homes placing recyclables in prohibited plastic bags rather than directly in the cart decreased from 52 to 22 percent.

The waste industry has changed. Municipalities and material recovery facilities (MRFs) are required to be more vigilant than ever in the fight against contamination. It may not be popular, but fighting problems at the curb with penalties, revocation of recycling bins, mandated education or simply a refusal to pick up contaminated carts might just be what’s needed to make a dent at the source of the problem.

I can’t think of another area of civic life where compliance with rules and regulation is voluntary—why should recycling be exempt?