Recycling contamination is a big problem and it's been getting worse. It's basically putting non-recyclable items into the blue recycling cart. These items must be removed when the recycling is sorted at the material sorting facility, which takes extra time, can damage equipment, can put workers at risk, and costs more money. The top 5 offenders are plastic bags/film, tanglers (hoses, chains, etc.), food/liquid, batteries, and to-go cups/lids
In early 2020, the Regional Solid Waste System was awarded a $147,000 grant from a nonprofit, The Recycling Partnership, to reduce contamination in residential curbside recycling. We designed a research study to assess the effects that two different types of informational flyers (called cart tags), could have if left on curbside recycling cart handles. In addition to the cart tags, outreach included postcards and utility bill mail inserts reminding residents of what they should recycle.
The solid waste section coordinated the efforts of the grant stakeholders including a local waste consulting firm, Resource Synergy, along with the local Material Recovery Facility (MRF), and all three curbside recycling haulers in the County: City of Spokane, Sunshine Disposal and Recycling, and Waste Management. The cart tags were meant to educate residents about what should and should not be included in curbside recycling.
The two different types of tags distributed were:
- A general cart tag informing the resident that plastic bags should not be included in their recycling. These generic tags were given to Waste Management and Sunshine Disposal and Recycling customers.
- An Oops tag that provided individualized feedback on what contaminants were found in a recycling cart. This Oops tag was only distributed in the City of Spokane.
Cart tags were distributed four consecutive times on 30 routes in Spokane County from the West Plains to Otis Orchards, and from Wandermere to Dishman Hills. Cart taggers worked in teams of 2-3 walking and driving collection routes from June through September.
We also incorporated COVID-19 health and safety precautions, requiring the taggers to wear masks while working. Given that our project design had originally included small teams of taggers, COVID-19 didn't delay the timeline of the project.
Our study results concluded that both types of cart tags reduced overall contamination. The Oops tags resulted in a slightly larger reduction in contamination, which was expected. However, given the amount of labor involved in the Oops tag option, the generic tag could be distributed to roughly 50% more residents for the same cost in labor.
|Study group |
(number of audited routes)
|Pre-tagging contamination (% weight)||Post-tagging contamination (% weight)||Percentage point reduction|
|Group : Oops tag (8)||0.4%||17.5%||12.9|
|Group B: General tag (9)||22.9%||12.0%||10.9|
|Group C: Postcard only, No tag (3)||16.5%||13.1%|
Anecdotal evidence collected through this project has resulted in the City of Spokane's Solid Waste Department recommending recycling service level adjustments to every other week instead of weekly set outs, given the low percentage of households setting out their recycling cart every week. The every-other-week service would mirror that of the two private companies, Waste Management and Sunshine Disposal and Recycling.
Having made smart use of The Recycling Partnership funds, we just completed a contract extension with The Recycling Partnership to spend the remaining funds of our initial award. Instead of focusing on single-family homes, the second phase of our project will focus on raising awareness about recycling contamination within multifamily housing. Typically, multifamily housing has a higher contamination rate than single family homes, and behavior is harder to change given the higher turnover seen in multifamily residents versus single family residents. The second phase begins this fall and will continue through the summer of 2021.
Three cheers for an outstanding project and an exceptional team!
Back row L to R: Kevan McClarty, Mike Terris, Gordie Fisette, Austin Stewart
Front row L to R: Dani Dobbins, Lindsay Chapman, Hailie Gillette, Deb Geiger
Not pictured: Claudia Marsh