How to Clean up Recycling Habits in the United States

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Research reveals that high diversion rates in the United States are primarily due to contamination, when non-recyclable materials are mixed into the recycling stream. Credit: Bill Ferriter

Cities currently produce 75 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gases (GHGs), a major contributor to climate change.1 The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) state, “Global climate change has already had observable effects on the environment. Glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes are breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted, and trees are flowering sooner. Effects that scientists had predicted in the past would result from global climate change are now occurring: loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise, and longer, more intense heat waves. The potential future effects of global climate change include more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought in some regions, and an increase in the number, duration, and intensity of tropical storms.”2 The consequences of human output are real and the issue of climate change is gaining awareness. A significant number of cities are taking steps at the local government level by proposing to lower their GHG emissions by as much as 90 percent.

 

One of the largest human impacts are landfills, which are the third largest contributor of methane in the United States. This GHG is roughly 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is the second most prevalent GHG that the United States emits.3 Because of both the amount of methane produced and its cogent effects, GHG reduction goals can be immediately impacted by decreasing dependence on landfill use. Therefore, increasing the amount of waste diverted from landfills is an important step in reducing the United States’ GHG emissions.

 

The current United States diversion rate is 34 percent.4 This is a relatively low number in comparison to other countries. In 2013 Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Austria each had above a 50 percent recycling rate.5 To determine the cause of low diversion rates, a team of graduate and undergraduate students from The Ohio State University conducted interviews in order to research the recycling market. The team interviewed 26 government representatives across the country asking why diversion rates were so low. Research participants pointed to contamination as a primary issue. Contamination happens when non-recyclable materials mix into the recycling stream. These non-recyclable materials decrease both the value and quantity of recyclables that can be processed at material recovery facilities (MRFs). Once the material is sorted, it is sold to end markets depending on the purity and commodity market price.

 

Currently in the United States, for every 100 pounds of recyclable material collected, 22-27 pounds of it are considered contaminated and cannot be recycled.6 Government representatives stated that they use education as a way to address the issue of contamination and have tasked so-called Municipal Recycling Educators with the responsibility of reaching out to, and better educating, community members on recycling habits. Halfway into the research process, the Ohio State team believed that a technological innovation could provide Municipal Recycling Educators with a tool to educate the community on contamination issues. However, after multiple interviews and more secondary research, the team found that the issue of contamination is a complex problem that cannot be addressed by a single technology-based tool. A far more robust and flexible system, perhaps involving a change in policy, would be required.

 

Problem–Solution Fit

 

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Pro-recycling graffiti on the Central Avenue bridge in Phoenix, Arizona. Credit: Kevin Dooley

The Ohio State University team interviewed multiple recycling municipality leaders and discovered that they view contamination as a significant problem. During interviews, recycling leaders explained how education is used to combat contamination by Municipal Recycling Educators. Based on this information, the team believed that the Municipal Recycling Educators could benefit from a new technology, a mobile application that provides contamination data and additional information to help municipalities educate the public.

 

Once the team investigated the recycling application market segment, they found that there were a number of resources already available, including mobile phone applications for consumer use. Among these is iRecycle, an application that finds local recycling opportunities and provides ways to recycle over 350 materials in the United States.7 Another example, Gro Recycling, is a game that teaches preschoolers which items are recyclable by feeding recycling bins what they like to “eat.”8 A new application was developed in 2013 with unique barcode scanning technology that tells the consumer what is and is not recyclable based on their location.9 Due to the multiple applications already on the market, it was evident that a new technology would not provide any advantage for city municipalities or consumers looking to increase diversion rates. When the team determined that there was no technological problem–solution fit, they decided to investigate what methods cities are currently using to decrease contamination and why the issue of contamination is so difficult to solve.

 

Every Municipal Recycling Educator the team spoke to had different methods of educating the public, including websites, emails, social media outlets, and many others. Informational flyers are used in schools, at events, mailed to residences, and even hand delivered. Recycling bins are labeled to show the consumer what can and cannot be recycled. In addition, Municipal Recycling Educators host community events to raise awareness and educate the public. Strategies involving a variety of methods are used in order to reach all demographics of a city. Each Municipal Recycling Educator stressed the importance of education, but they also explained that their efforts can only do so much. One Municipal Recycling Educator, Caroline Mitchell from Fort Collins, Colorado, summed up the problem by mentioning, “I’m not sure that contamination will ever be ‘solved.’ The general public will never recycle 100 percent in line with local guidelines, but that’s one of the main reasons that all recycling goes through a processing facility (known in the industry as a MRF). Constant education and then sorting the contaminants out of the recyclables are just part of the process.”10 Although contamination is a considerable problem, many Municipal Recycling Educators believed it will remain unsettled until the entire recycling system is changed. At the heart of the problem lie four key issues: the variability of recycling structures within each community, the differences in recyclables accepted by different communities, the lack of resources available to municipalities, and a lack of incentive to recycle on the part of community members.

 

Contamination Causes

 

The team interviewed municipalities from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, New York, Michigan, West Virginia, California, and Colorado. In their interviews, the team discovered that each recycling program is unique to the area and incredibly complex. For example, in Denver, Colorado, The Public Works Department is in charge of the city’s recycling campaign, while Columbus, Ohio’s recycling campaigns are delegated to The Office of Environmental Stewardship and the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio. Across the United States, there is great variety in organizational structures, which makes recycling infrastructures difficult to improve. The Communications Coordinator of Santa Monica, California explained that because every city uses a different plan, a different set of instructions, and a different way of educating, each one has a limited impact on the overall market problem as well as consumer behavior.11

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A worker waste material for recycling at a confectionary factory. Credit: Nestlé

 

In addition, not all cities accept the same recyclable materials, which causes confusion. People visiting, moving to, or working in a new area often come from a region that recycles different materials. For example, Ann Arbor, Michigan collaborates with a nonprofit organization, Recycle Ann Arbor. The Municipal Recycling Educator described Ann Arbor as a college town that has a large turnover of residents each year. This Municipal Recycling Educator described a cultural shift where young individuals do not tend to stay in the same location for long periods of time and rather frequently move from city to city. Therefore, residents often come from all over the country and do not realize that their new city may not accept the same materials as their previous one.12 The differences in acceptable recyclable material vary from city to city, based on what the local MRF accepts. Not all MRFs accept the same materials because the profitability of recyclables is different based on their location, and the recycling capabilities of sorting machines can be diverse. Ultimately, the variances in recyclability create a lot of confusion for residents, resulting in unintentional contamination.

 

Another factor frequently mentioned in interviews was the lack of resources available for recycling. Cities often have a limited number of staff dedicated to educating the public and the compensation for such a task is relatively low, leading to a difficulty in finding appropriate candidates for the job. Cities also have budget restraints stemming from the need to allocate funds across multiple departments. Local government representatives stated that recycling is a lower priority when compared to other city utilities. The Director of Cleveland, Ohio’s Office of Sustainability explained that it is difficult to allocate a lot of money to “green” efforts when the community is largely poor. He explained that “often, when you’re working in a city with a large low-income population, collaborating with a variety of different organizations is necessary to get projects done because resources are sometimes limited. Fortunately, collaboration brings a host of other benefits, including better chance at community-wide support.”13 However, many city governments and local organizations focus on other issues besides recycling and are not mandated to take action. Therefore, recycling is pushed down the list and fewer city resources are allocated toward it.

 

Recycling programs also lack consumer motivators. Secondary research found that United States recyclers are primarily motivated by incentives, purpose, and meaning.14 If these are missing, the motivation to recycle, and recycle properly, is diminished. Interviewees mentioned citizens who do recycle often do so out of a sense of personal responsibility. These residents understand the positive benefits associated with recycling and are willing and able to make the effort. However, more strategic efforts are needed to incentivize the majority of residents with external motivation. While the positive impacts of increased diversion rates help avoid excess GHG emissions and water consumption, those impacts do not immediately impact an individual community. There are also no direct repercussions for the consumer if they dispose of items incorrectly. The Municipal Recycling Educators suggested that incentivization was a key element that needs to be incorporated into a solution in order to create a tangible, immediate benefit, because “responsibility” and “goodwill” are not enough.

 

Combating Contamination Strategy and Conclusion

 

Successful recycling programs in the United States employ policy changes, rather than technology-based solutions. In order to combat contamination, the feedback received suggests that the implementation of a policy-based strategy that incorporates a more multifaceted approach—one that would build a recycling program that incorporates incentives and mandates—is the best course of action.

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A young girl pulls a compost bin in San Francisco, California. The city provides homeowners with compost, recycling, and waste bins. Credit: John Markos O’Neill

Communities searching for strategies can explore programs and initiatives already put in place by more successful cities. Examples of this method include pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) programs in cities like Atlanta, Georgia where residents are charged for their trash pick-up but receive free recycling services.15 More progressive programs require homeowners to both recycle and compost. San Francisco, California provides homeowners with compost bins, recycling bins, and waste bins.16 Seattle, Washington fines residents whose waste bins are filled with 10 percent or more of recyclables or food waste.17

 

These cities can be great models for other communities to base their efforts on. However, it is apparent that the resources required to implement policy changes are not easily acquired in every city within the U.S. More research on contamination and its challenges are needed in order to increase diversion rates across the U.S.
This project’s research would suggest that minimally funded cities should focus their efforts on collaborating with other organizations in order to promote community engagement and education. Educating residents, particularly new residents, on recycling best-practices that are city specific can reduce contamination in recycle bins. Engaging residents of all ages in active recycling habits would go a long way towards developing a sense of responsibility and community.

 

References

  1. Cities and Climate Change. UNEP. United Nations Environmental Progamme [online] (2015) http://www.unep.org/resourceefficiency/Policy/ResourceEfficientCities/Fo....
  2. Global Climate Change: Effects. Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet [online] (2015) http://climate.nasa.gov/effects/.
  3. Overview of Greenhouse Gases. Methane Emissions [online] (2015) http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html.
  4. Municipal Solid Waste. US Environmental Protection Agency. United States EPA [online] (2015) http://www3.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/.
  5. Municipal Waste Recycling Rates in 32 European Countries, 2001 and 2010. European Environment Agency [online] (March 19, 2013) http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/managing-municipal-solid-waste.
  6. Collins, S. A Common Theme. Resource Recycling[online] (February 2012) http://www.container-recycling.org/assets/pdfs/ACommonTheme.pdf.
  7. iRecycle. ITunes App Store. Apple Inc. [online] (2015) https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/irecycle/id312708176?mt=8.
  8. Gro Recycling. ITunes App Store. Apple Inc. [online] (2015) https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/gro-recycling/id663552636?mt=8.
  9. Scanning Innovation to ‘Transform’ Recycling?  Recycling International [online] (2015) http://www.recyclinginternational.com/recycling-news/7321/other-news/uni....
  10. Mitchell, C. Contamination and Fort Collins. E-mail interview. November 13, 2015.
  11. Basmajian, A. Santa Monica. E-mail interview. November 16, 2015.
  12. Chessler-Stull, Ann Arbor. Phone interview. December 6, 2015.
  13. Gray, M. Cleveland. Phone interview. November 24, 2015.
  14. Incentive Programs for Local Government Recycling and Waste Reduction [online] (October 19, 2001) http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:UAmVzba4OxoJ:www.ca....
  15. Pay-As-You-Throw Programs. Sustainable Cities Institute, National League of Cities [online] (2015) http://www.sustainablecitiesinstitute.org/topics/materials-management/re....
  16. Zero Waste FAQ. SFEnvironment, Department and City of San Francisco [online] (2015) http://www.sfenvironment.org/zero-waste/overview/zero-waste-faq.
  17. Ordinances Prohibiting Recyclables in Garbage. Seattle Public Utilities [online] (2015) http://www.seattle.gov/Util/MyServices/Garbage/AboutGarbage/SolidWastePl....