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Cleaning up contamination in its residential recycling program has been a goal for the community of Wausau, Wisconsin, ever since it performed a waste audit about two years ago.

According to a news release from the city of Wausau, its October 2019 waste audit showed that 84 percent of residential recycling carts contained contamination.

“When residents don’t put the correct materials in their recycling carts, we undermine the entire purpose of our local recycling program,” says MaryAnne Groat, Wausau’s finance director and recycling coordinator. “Those unacceptable materials simply take an expensive trip from the home to the recycling facility and then onto a landfill.”

As a result, the city’s Sustainability, Energy and Environment Committee voted in favor of bringing its residents more education about proper recycling. One way it’s doing that is through a web-based app called Betterbin, which the city officially launched Feb. 15.

Michelle Goetsch, who is the CEO of Wisconsin-based Betterbin, launched her business in 2018 with the idea that data and technology could change the way consumers learn how to properly dispose of packaging material. She says her goal was to provide consumers locally accurate recycling instructions for brand-specific products.

Goetsch says she had no experience in the recycling industry when she started her business but adds that she was passionate about improving sustainable waste management in communities and knew recycling education could be better. She says she had many conversations with solid waste management experts and material recovery facility (MRF) operators to learn about the complexities of the material recovery ecosystem in the United States when building Betterbin.

Since its launch in 2018, Goetsch says pilot implementations of the app have taken place in multiple communities, college campuses and at an Airbnb location.

“We are a startup, but we’ve done multiple pilot implementations to iterate on our machine learning technology as well as how to increase user engagement. [Betterbin is still] a pilot in the sense that our technology will only continue to get better, and we’ve only just embarked on partnerships with brands who want to use our platform as a way to reach environmentally responsible consumers,” she says. “At this point, it’s functioning at a high level, and it’s been fun to see user analytics to understand where consumers have the most questions and their willingness to want to learn more.”

© Production Perig / stock.adobe.com

A web-based app

Over the past year, Wausau and the MRF that receives its materials worked with Betterbin to develop the guidelines and content that were loaded into Betterbin’s web-based app, ensuring it would provide the right instructions for residents on what and how to recycle. “The app looks specifically at what’s accepted for Wausau residents when materials to go our MRF,” Groat says.

Goetsch adds that Betterbin is a “web-based app,” meaning it’s a website that can be accessed on computer or smartphone browsers without users having to commit to downloading an actual app.

“We intentionally have initially offered only a web-based app,” she says. “The biggest reasons we’re set up that way is because it’s a hard ask to get someone to download something on their phone, especially if they’re not overly passionate about recycling.

She continues, “A web-based app is more accessible—you can use it on a desktop, or on the go if you’re staying overnight at a travel destination, but it looks and functions just like an app on your mobile device.”

By scanning a barcode or typing the product into the web-based app, a resident can see if the item is recyclable.

Wisconsin-based Rocket Industrial, a packaging solutions provider, also helped to provide funding for Wausau to create the educational app with Betterbin. “As a provider of packaging solutions to brands internationally, we see it as our responsibility to divert as much recyclable packaging from landfills as possible,” says Ryan Gallagher, president of Rocket Industrial. “Seeing firsthand the contamination issues locally helps us better serve our customers across the country. The opportunity to support a local entrepreneur [to] solve a problem in our own community is the icing on the cake.”

Near-term goals

Groat says the city plans to monitor contamination in its residential recycling program.

Betterbin’s Goetsch says her team also will provide Wausau with additional promotional materials for residents, such as mailers that can be sent with water bills and messaging the city can share on social media. She adds that the Betterbin web-based app features a “tips and tricks” section with monthly themed content, such as details on how to recycle pet food packaging and giveaways of gift cards from local businesses.

”We have a vision of working directly with [stakeholders] to properly educate people on recycling.” – Michelle Goetsch, CEO, Betterbin

Groat adds that she is hopeful that the new web-based app will give residents the educational components they need to recycle right. She says she also hopes it will encourage more residents to make better purchases initially.

“I think this can help people make better decisions to ‘prerecycle,’” she says. “For instance, I try to purchase things that have less packaging.”

Goetsch says Betterbin’s goal is to serve any individual, building or community with contracted recycling services. “There is a lot of room for improvement in helping consumers recycle properly,” she says. “We have a vision of working directly with brands, MRF operators and local stakeholders to properly educate people on recycling, composting and food waste prevention but also the critical concepts of reducing, reusing and being a responsible consumer.”

She continues, “It’s hard for a consumer to go to a grocery store and know what packaging is sustainable or recyclable. We have this goal of being a platform and a data pool to help consumers make purchasing and disposal decisions with environmental and human health at the forefront of their mind.”

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at msmalley@gie.net.