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The future of recycling is sanitation workers rejecting your bin

Zero tolerance for contaminated trash brings the quickest compliance from residents, the city of Atlanta finds

Coca-Cola, which produces roughly 117 billion plastic bottles a year, has pledged to capture and recycle one plastic bottle for every one it produces by 2030.

New York

THE early morning sky above Atlanta is still black, but a team of recycling inspectors is up and moving along Nacoochee Drive ruthlessly assessing the discarding habits of the residents. The team gingerly tips one of the 96-gallon blue recycling pails placed curbside and eyeballs its contents. There's folded cardboard, a few aluminium soda cans, and several empty milk jugs, but also a plastic bread bag and a ripped-open packet for mozzarella sticks. The team makes an instant call: reject.

The team tags the trash prominently with an OOPS label reminiscent of a hotel "do not disturb" sign. It has two purposes. The first is to lightheartedly explain to the owners what they've done wrong. The tag includes illustrations of most common forbidden categories, such as plastic bags. The second is to tell the recycling trucks not to pick up. Residents either fix the problem or forgo service.

"Zero tolerance brings the quickest compliance," says Cecilia Shutters, the technical adviser for Feet on the Street, the programme Atlanta is using to corral its residents into better recycling behaviour.

Desperate times

Deliberately rejecting recycling might sound like a rough tactic, but for city recycling programmes these are desperate times. For about two decades, the US and most of the world sent much of its dirtiest recycling to China, where cheap labour sorted through the mess extracting valuables and dumping the rest. But in 2017, China severely tightened rules for taking contaminated trash.

The fallout has been dramatic. Five years ago, China took 40 per cent of America's recyclables, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association, a Washington, DC area-based industry advocacy group. Now almost none of it goes to China.

As the secondary market collapsed, the price of municipal recycling programmes soared. In response, dozens of US towns simply shuttered their programmes and sent everything to the landfill.

But a growing number of American cities and towns are trying another option: cleaning up their waste stream. To accomplish that, they're forcing American households do some of the thankless job of trash sorting that previously fell to Chinese workers. The cities that figure out how to get their citizens to comply have a better shot at making money in the secondary market that remains - or even better, creating a more robust recycling market here at home.

Americans don't think much about their trash once it's picked up. Much of what is collected as recyclables at curbside is contaminated byproducts, including plastic bags and other thin plastic film that has no hope of a second life. Roughly one-fourth of all recyclables is so contaminated it goes directly into the garbage after collection, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association.

The problem has been exacerbated in recent years by cities adopting "single stream", a method by which all recyclable waste from bottles, cans, cardboard and plastics is collected in one basket. Using a single bin as a catchall is correlated with higher contamination rates, but it's far more convenient and cost-effective for collectors. That's why the method grew in the US from 29 per cent of recycling in 2005 to 80 per cent by 2014, according to a survey by the American Forest and Paper Association.

In some ways, Feet on the Street, which is about having Americans face the contamination, makes particular sense for Atlanta, which is home to Coca-Cola Co. Beverage groups in America have a long, documented history of promoting recycling and anti-litter campaigns that push the responsibility for waste away from industry and back onto the consumer.

In fact, Coca-Cola, which produces roughly 117 billion plastic bottles a year, has pledged to capture and recycle one plastic bottle for every one it produces by 2030. However, it doesn't plan to pay to do this itself. So to achieve this, it's counting on cities and municipalities doing a much more thorough job of collecting the plastic bottles Coke sells.

"We agree that too much of our packaging is ending up in landfills and the environment," said spokeswoman Kirsten Witt. She said that solving the packaging waste problem requires a broad approach that includes changing the package design and working with governments and others to create new collection systems.

Better collection is one of the reasons that the Coca-Cola Foundation gave US$4 million for the recycling improvements in Atlanta. The big beneficiary was The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit group that offers research, technical assistance, and grant money to local governments to improve recycling collection and infrastructure. The Partnership, which created Feet on the Street, also gets funding from some of the country's largest plastics manufacturers and distributors, including Exxon Mobil Corp, Dow Chemical Co, and, yes, Coca-Cola.

When China started sending out warning that it would eventually restrict waste intake way back in 2013, the Partnership saw its opening. In 2014 it began testing a programme that educated citizens on what materials had value to recyclers.

Early efforts with governments in Massachusetts and Ohio tested combinations of sticks and carrots to maximise participation without causing alienation. In the end, says Cody Marshall, chief community strategy officer with the Partnership, what worked best was sending a mailing that educated residents on the rules, then following up by enforcing those rules uncompromisingly. This included putting a team of inspectors out to evaluate each recycling can.

"Just giving warnings but still collecting the material doesn't work," he says, "but when we started rejecting the cart, that's when the behaviour change started clicking."

In its pilot programme of 5,000 residential homes in 2017, Atlanta found that collection of valuable materials climbed 27 per cent, while contamination decreased 57 per cent. City officials were so happy that they expanded the programme to all 80,000 of the city's single-family homes. The first 20,000 began being tagged in September.

Roughly 70 local governments across 18 states have implemented elements of the Feet on the Street programme and another score will join this year.

Single stream recycling

There is near consensus that America's widespread reliance on single stream recycling has created a mess. "Look, the way we've taught people to recycle is horrendous," says Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, a California nonprofit group. "No other country does it like this."

In Japan, some towns demand that residents sort trash into 45 separate categories, including separate bins for pillows and toothbrushes. Furthermore, counting on material recycling facilities to sort through piles of recycling is "like asking people to unscramble an egg," Ms Collins says. And, she argues, there are more effective ways. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nine states offer small refunds for returned cans and bottles. In those states, 62 per cent of polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) plastic bottles sold are eventually returned. That's vs collection rates of 17 per cent of Pet plastic bottles in the rest of the country, she says. Such laws, she adds, have been historically opposed by the very companies that now fund the Recycling Partnership.

Recycling Partnership chief executive officer Keefe Harrison says her group doesn't oppose container laws and sometimes works in communities that use the policies. "Deposits alone are not enough to run a healthy system," she says. "Communities still need help with buying new carts, trucks, and community engagement programmes like Feet on the Street."

Back out on the predawn streets of Buckhead, the upscale Atlanta district, the recycling inspector team is moving too fast to consider controversy. The team must monitor an average of 1,000 homes a day to keep on target with the city's goals. The most common reaction - on the hotline and on the streets - is curiosity, not anger, according to the city. But tempers do flare on occasion. Team leader Jeff Brewer says that one time a woman accused them of trying to steal her trash. Sometimes, he looks back and sees a grumpy resident ripping off the OOPS tag - and throwing it into the recycling bin. BLOOMBERG