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Despite laborious efforts to reduce contamination in the city’s recycling stream by the Public Works Bureau in Akron, Ohio, the city still was facing a 39 percent contamination rate earlier this year.

Contamination increases the cost of recycling and threatens the sustainability of the city’s program.

“Toledo, Ohio’s contamination rate was 44 percent when they were asked to stop recycling in the city,” says Jacqueline Flaherty-Ricchiuti, chief executive officer of Keep Akron Beautiful (KAB). “We don’t want to know what happens when we get to 44 percent.”

To address the issue of contamination, the city of Akron partnered with KAB; ReWorks, the Summit County/Akron solid waste management authority; the local material recovery facility (MRF) operated by Houston-based Waste Management; the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, to implement the grant-funded Recycle Right campaign throughout the city from June to August.

The Ohio EPA selected KAB to receive a $66,000 grant to work with The Recycling Partnership on the program. The Recycling Partnership provided $150,000 in staff and resources for the program, and ReWorks supplied $20,000 in funds for project management.

At 6 a.m. Monday through Friday this summer, Ricchiuti and her team would meet at the Public Works building on Triplett Boulevard in Akron to get their assigned routes from Daniel Dempsey, the city’s solid waste and recycling manager who oversaw the project. The temporary workers who are employed through the grant program, aided by some KAB volunteers, drove along the streets of Akron, checking residents’ recycling bins before their scheduled weekly pickup. If contaminants were in the bin, they tied an “Oops!” tag to the cart, identifying the items, including plastic film and yard waste, that needed to be removed from the bin. They also pulled the cart away from the curb, which notified the driver not to collect the material. The process is called tagging or rejecting carts.

Raising awareness

Dempsey says he has seen everything from “baby diapers to car fenders and hypodermic needles” in residential recycling bins. He began overseeing Akron’s recycling division in 2012 but has been with the sanitation department for more than 20 years. The department provides waste and recycling collection services to the city.

Years ago, Dempsey says he started taking pictures of the “filth” in residents’ recycling bins and compiling a digital database to track the contamination. He pulled contaminants, including plastic film, out of residents’ recycling bins and left the items on their doorsteps, along with educational materials on the city’s recycling program. He says he’s taken hundreds of carts away from residents that continue to improperly recycle.

The contamination problem began when the city moved to an automated collection system, Dempsey says.

“Seven years ago, everything was handpicked at the curb, so we would see if it was dirty and leave it,” he says. “Now, everything is automated and hidden inside the cart, and the guys don’t see it.”

KAB, which managed the tagging program for the city, worked with The Recycling Partnership and the local MRF to conduct an audit of materials entering the facility. The audit identified the six contaminants—bagged recyclables, plastic film, food waste, clothing, yard waste and bulky items—that are most common in the residential recycling stream. The Recycling Partnership then created an “Oops!” tag printed with the six items and a targeted education campaign designed to reduce contamination in the recycling stream.

Craig Wittig, director of community programs for The Recycling Partnership, explains, “The challenge with these programs is you need a whole different workforce essentially.”

KAB hired 16 people—students, teachers, retirees—with the grant. Before the program began June 3, all of the temporary workers received training on how to tag for the six contaminants and to track the data using an app, Ricchiuti says. The workers spent a total of four weeks in each neighborhood in Akron examining and tagging recycling carts with the goal to educate residents and change their behavior.

“I’m a better recycler because of this,” says Alexis Holt, a KAB volunteer inspector. “I live in Cuyahoga Falls, but I learned my recyclables go to Akron for processing. It’s very interesting.”

The Ohio EPA has prioritized improving recycling. The agency has awarded more than $4 million in grants this year to 66 local governments, businesses and nonprofits throughout Ohio to help develop and expand recycling programs.

The Recycling Partnership also contributed funding for the program.

“The Recycling Partnership is a nationwide nonprofit that’s charged with both increasing and improving recycling,” Wittig says. “We got involved with contamination three years ago. It’s not just an Akron problem or an Ohio problem. It’s a nationwide problem, but Akron and the Ohio EPA have stepped up.”

Changing behavior

The Recycling Partnership has developed resources, including the customizable tag, sign and educational materials, for municipalities interested in implementing tagging campaigns, but the program “does cost dollars” and “requires local, state, corporate funding” to implement, Wittig says.

“Contamination costs cities money and MRFs money,” he adds. “To invest money in this contamination project would end up being a savings to everyone.”

The Recycling Partnership worked with Rubicon Global, Atlanta, to develop the contamination tracking app that allows workers to geolocate their routes, mark carts for contamination and track individual progress. A database includes each resident’s bin with data collected over the four-week period. The previous paper-based system was labor-intensive and could result in errors.

“You can mark if carts are out or not. You can mark if the cart is clean or not, and, if it’s not clean, it allows you to digitally mark the six contaminants,” Wittig says. “Everyone that had yard waste in their bin can receive an email or flyer in the database that the app supports. It allows you to really crunch the data and look at the data in a meaningful way.”

The Recycling Partnership’s contamination reduction efforts have grown in the last few years. Targeted multiweek education programs have decreased contamination by 57 percent and increased recycling by 27 percent in Atlanta, which had a 37 percent contamination rate at the program’s start. Its efforts also decreased contamination in Chicago by 32 percent.

Akron is targeting a 25 percent improvement in the quality of its recyclables.

“We’re trying to limit the focus on the main contaminants that are challenging in each recycling system,” Wittig says.

Dempsey says the program is helping because it prevents the contaminants from entering the MRF.

“Week one when we go into a neighborhood, we’re pretty consistently tagging every single cart,” Ricchiuti says. “By week four, there’s usually a small infraction, like a plastic bag. That’s our biggest problem.”

The Recycling Partnership says it plans to help implement the program in four more cities in 2020, including Denver, where the goal is to increase the recycling rate from 23 percent to 34 percent, the national average.

The author is the Recycling Today Media Group’s digital editor. She can be reached at kmaile@gie.net.