Since the 1960s, recycling has become a common practice in many U.S. homes and businesses. Over time, recycling processes and policies have evolved, shaking up the user experience. Recyclable materials — paper, plastics, metal and glass — were once sorted into separate bins for collection at the curb. Collection practices in many communities have since transitioned to single-stream recycling, where all recyclable materials are collected in one container to be sorted later at a material recovery facility (MRF).

While recycling collection became more efficient with the transition to single-stream recycling, new challenges arose. The convenience of only having one bin or cart led individuals to become complacent and to sometimes treat recycling like another trash cart — tossing in items like garden hoses, plastic bags or containers with food residue on them. Over time, it has become increasingly more common for incorrect items to be put into the recycling system or for materials to be recycled in the wrong way.

Contamination in the recycling stream significantly increases the costs to process recyclables and often results in fewer recyclable materials actually being recycled. Municipalities across the country are struggling to implement effective strategies to reduce recycling contamination and increase recycling participation.

A Regional Approach to Tackling Recycling Contamination

In 2018, the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) — a 16-county region of more than 6 million people — launched a $600,000 regional recycling survey and campaign in partnership with Burns & McDonnell and the Recycling Partnership. The objective of this campaign was to better understand the quantity and quality of materials ending up in NCTCOG-member communities’ recycling systems, and to develop a regional public educational campaign that supports local efforts to increase recycling participation and decrease contamination.

Breaking Down Waste

The campaign was developed by carrying out a waste characterization study and survey involving 10 cities and seven MRF operators. The waste stream analysis conducted by Burns & McDonnell sorted approximately 10,000 pounds of refuse from single-family homes among municipalities in the region over a five-day period. Data and analysis from this exercise provided a representative understanding of the composition profile and capture rate of recyclable material in the North Central Texas region.

Based on research completed for the study, the amount of non-recyclable material (or contamination) in the recycling stream was 21.7%. This means that more than one in five tons of material sent to recycling facilities in the region ends up in landfills. Contamination also increases processing and hauling costs, decreases productivity of MRFs and introduces detrimental items into the recycle processing system.

Capture rate is a metric that indicates the effectiveness of a region’s efforts to collect, process and sell recyclables to market. This study focused on capture rate as a key metric, rather than the more traditional recycling rate metric, to generate a more impactful education and outreach campaign.

According to Eric Weiss, who led the analysis for Burns & McDonnell, "The project identified that approximately 450,000 tons of recyclables are sold to market annually, representing a 32% capture rate for the region. Recyclable paper had the highest capture rate at 45%, followed by glass at 25%, plastic at 22% and metal at 18%. These results found that $122 million of potentially recyclable materials are disposed in North Central Texas landfills annually. Recyclable plastic made up about $50 million of this total, followed by metal at $47 million and paper at $25 million."

Part of this effort also requested details from MRF operators on the most detrimental and common contamination present in their inbound streams. These were the top five most detrimental items:

  1. Wires, hoses, cords, ropes, chains
  2. Explosives (i.e. lithium-ion batteries, propane tanks)
  3. Needles/medical equipment
  4. Food/yard waste
  5. Plastic bags

Increasing contamination presents a serious problem for MRF operators. These items can cause injuries to employees, damage or stall equipment, decrease the efficiency of the recycling facility and increase costs to the operator and customers.

Communitywide Effort

In spring 2019, the campaign launched its regional “Know What to Throw” public engagement campaign to help increase participation and decrease contamination of the recycling stream. These ongoing efforts included an online quiz, press releases, traditional advertisements and social media advertisements. Increased public engagement and knowledge sharing throughout every stage of the recycling process can help local efforts become more deliberate and effective. These efforts often result in residents knowing how to recycle where they live, work and play.

As of June 2019, municipalities have access to tools and assets to amplify the campaign’s messaging. Metrics on the deployment of the campaign assets — views of Google ads, online quiz engagement or #knowwhattothrow metadata tracking — will be analyzed by the NCTCOG in coordination with the Recycling Partnership to support the ongoing needs of the campaign.

Recycling messaging is challenging because there may be multiple messages reaching residents. This regional campaign helps residents decide what to do when discarding materials because they know what to throw. This increased awareness, over time, is intended to strengthen the partnerships among the stakeholders of the recycling system and increase the region’s 32% capture rate.

A well-designed recycling program can lead to positive environmental and economic benefits. Before establishing a recycling program, it's important to gather metrics on current recycling activity, infrastructure needs and funding methods to inform recycling opportunities and state and local plans.

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Scott Pasternak serves as a leader in the solid waste and resource recovery practice for Burns & McDonnell, which focuses on advancing solid waste and recycling programs for governmental entities. Since the 1990s, Scott has worked with local, regional and state governments to solve challenging contractual, planning, operational, and financial solid waste management and recycling issues.