Dem-Con Cos. President Bill Keegan recently had an eye-opening experience during a Minnesotan city council meeting about a specific landfill. When residents who opposed the landfill were asked where they believed their garbage ended up, one woman replied, “It goes to the curb.”

Keegan says that was a pivotal moment for him. “[Her response] summarizes what most people think of the waste and recycling industry,” Keegan says. “Their knowledge ends at the curb.”

The public, he says, is not aware of the ins and outs of recycling. To help to educate them, Shakopee, Minnesota-based Dem-Con CEO Jason Haus had the idea to start its Green Grades educational program in 2009. Green Grades is focused mainly on educating students and “future leaders” in the waste and recycling sector.

Despite a general lack of awareness around recycling, Keegan says people do want to know what happens to materials once they leave the curb. However, inconsistent messaging from various haulers, cities, counties and state governments has people puzzled. “By and large, people are confused,” he says.

As a result, when Dem-Con was discussing the blueprint for its single-stream material recovery facility (MRF) that opened in November 2013, it was imperative that an educational component be part of the 60,000-square-foot facility’s layout. (Read more about Dem-Con’s MRF in the feature “Moving Forward,” available at

With a conference space on-site at the new MRF, Dem-Con’s education center became a reality. This space allowed the company to expand Green Grades’ scope and capabilities.

Since the MRF’s education center opened in late 2013, more than 3,000 people have visited, with more than 40 school groups having toured the 80,000-ton-per-year MRF. The facility also hosts multiple entire fifth grade classes annually for several consecutive days.

“As the third generation of the company is looking to the future, realizing people are wholly unaware of what happens to their trash and recycling, we feel like we can be a better steward of the community by engaging the community,” Keegan says.

Coordinated messaging

To curtail confusion, recycling programs must have unified messaging, according to many industry sources. Engaging the community through educational outreach is a three-prong approach for Dem-Con that is targeted at the local, state and national levels. Keegan explains the company’s approach as:

  1. bottom-up – a grassroots effort of educational programs that includes Green Grades;
  2. midlevel – cities, counties and state educational outreach efforts with existing networks; and
  3. top-down – national work, including the National Waste & Recycling Association’s (NWRA’s) Recycling Committee, which Dem-Con is part of, as well as The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, which he gives as two examples.

“Those [levels] all need to come together to achieve unified and coordinated messaging,” Keegan says.

To help drive the message through Dem-Con’s work, Keegan says the company hired Erin Chamberlain full time in August 2016 as its educational outreach director to lead the Green Grades program.

Chamberlain, a former teacher, says Green Grades motivates students to change their behavior when it comes to recycling.

When they tour the MRF, visitors are face to face with the very people who pull out contaminants in the recycling stream, such as tangled garden hoses and plastic film, daily. Visitors see firsthand how people are separating materials; it’s not all done automatically by machines.

“When they see there’s equipment but also people standing and sorting these materials and the problems and challenges contamination causes, there’s a human element that helps visitors understand they can’t put that [material] in [the bin],” Chamberlain says.

They also get to see conveyors, air blowers, magnets and eddy currents moving materials in various directions.

However, Chamberlain says, it is this human element that really catches visitors’ attention. She explains, “Sometimes there’s a perfect moment on the tour where people see something like a long piece of film being dragged by a drum feeder, and when they’re coming back at the end of the tour, they see workers still pulling the film off the equipment. They’ll ask, ‘Why would you put that in your bin? I will never again put that in the bin because I saw it was mixed in with everything.’

“The human element,” Chamberlain says, “adds a perspective that you can’t get from reading a book.”

She adds, “Someone has to tear open a bag of recyclables, and [visitors] take home the message ‘Don’t bag your recyclables.’”

In addition to touring the single-stream MRF, visitors get to explore Dem-Con’s construction and demolition (C&D) recycling facility, shingle processing yard, metals processing facility, wood processing facility and landfill, which are all located on one campus.

Interactive learning

While providing tours of MRFs is nothing new, other elements of Dem-Con’s MRF education center and Green Grades program are. Before taking the walking tour, people start their visits in one of two classrooms in the center.

In the classroom, a video of the working MRF is shown, giving visitors a closer look at the equipment in action. This is helpful for viewing machines that may be blocked by walls or covers, such as old corrugated containers (OCC) screens, and would be difficult to see on a tour. Additionally, this video gives people who are not able to go on the walking tour similar experience.

Keegan says, “If they understand how the equipment works, they can make more educated decisions of where to put that recyclable item.”

Using iPads and an interactive map, people can scan pictures on the map and watch a short video clip of that piece of equipment in action.

The conversation gets more in-depth in the second classroom: the end markets room. Here, visitors are presented with a magnetic wall where they can sort materials by categories: fibers, metals, plastics and glass.

The other side of the end markets room features a Green Screen, an interactive kiosk and a scanner. Students can place a material, such as a plastic bottle, on the scanner, and a video shows them how a plastic bottle can become a piece of yard furniture. That area also includes examples of real items that have been made from recycled materials.

“It takes them a step beyond the MRF,” Chamberlain says of the center’s end markets room. “They understand how the recyclables are made into something new; that’s a cool moment for them.”

Beyond the MRF

“Green Grades doesn’t always mean people are coming to us, we also go out to classrooms,” Chamberlain says.

She visits elementary through high schools to educate students on the value of recycling. Classroom visits include more YouTube videos, as well as using the Green Screen app and even bringing certain exhibits from the education center to the classroom. Chamberlain says, “We’ve brought out materials to mimic how the equipment works at the MRF, so we had screens and magnets and gave students jumbled materials and asked how they could use equipment to separate steel containers, as an example.”

Lesson plans for teachers also have been put together, allowing them to teach recycling basics at their own pace.

In addition to classroom activities, Dem-Con takes students out of the school with its mobile education center. This classroom-on-wheels features interactive exhibits as in the MRF’s education center, including the Green Screen interactive kiosk; a sorting wall on the exterior; text, images and technology inside detailing single-stream recycling and other recycling processes (shingle, C&D, metal and organics); and an interactive augmented reality map showing off the MRF’s equipment.

The mobile education center gives Dem-Con the chance to educate even more students. Back at the MRF, 90 students cannot walk through the facility at once; the mobile center opens the door for more students to learn.

Keegan points to a high school’s annual environmental fair that serves as a measure of success of the Green Grades program and mobile center. Dem-Con visits the high school for one day, with 700 students walking through the center. When Dem-Con first began these efforts, none of the students had heard of the company. “Now we ask who’s heard of Dem-Con, and half of them will raise their hands. That’s a measure of success that they’re aware of that messaging and have heard of Dem-Con,” Keegan says.

Keegan and Chamberlain say, like the MRF’s education center, the mobile center will serve as a community asset. Chamberlain says a large part of the center’s focus is looking for opportunities for community outreach and events. This includes a five-day stint at the county fair in summer 2017.

“The trailer will allow us to reach larger groups that can’t join us at the education center,” Keegan says. “Because our service area extends beyond the Twin Cities metro, the trailer also gives us the capability to bring our education program to distant schools or community events.”

The future of Green Grades is hopeful and growing. If it ends up as a multistate program, Keegan says Dem-Con supports that. “It may be that it inspires other providers to provide education programs,” Keegan says.

Whatever it takes, educating Americans about recycling aims to lessen contamination and confusion, one lesson at a time.

The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at