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Take a walk in any neighborhood on “garbage day” and you’ll likely find a curbside recycling bin at every residence.

What’s inside that bin may surprise you. While the majority of people properly dispose of recyclable materials, others place nonrecyclables in the recycling bins, causing a slowdown in the processing and contaminating other recycled material. This is a “violation” and an issue that municipalities and haulers have been working on together for many years.

“When market expectations are high and the prices received for recovered materials are still relatively low, the concern about curbside recyclable contamination is very high,” said Sara Bixby, deputy executive director at the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). “It is an ongoing challenge – teaching people to put the correct material in their recycle bins. When they don’t, it isn’t like speeding or running a red light, but it is indeed a violation.”

Don Ross, director of operations for Tampa, Florida-based Kessler Consulting, Inc., a company that works with municipalities on waste collection issues, said contamination is typically identified at the material recovery facility (MRF) where recyclables are sorted and prepared for the commodities markets. The material commodity buyers and end users of the material drive identification by processors. They set the contamination hurdles.

Usually, a contract exists between the processor (usually the private owner of a MRF that serves a region) and the local municipality. “It would be impossible to deliver a load to the MRF without some contamination. It is unacceptable to deliver a load with a lot of contamination,” said Anne Germain, director of the National Waste and Recycling Association. “Ideally, the contract would specify an acceptable contamination level. The procedure for identifying the contamination levels should also be stipulated in the contract. For instance, the parties might agree that on a quarterly basis, a specific number of random loads that must be sorted. The results of that sort might then be used as part of 12 month rolling average for the contract contamination rate. This is just one example of how the situation can be handled. To avoid difficulties, it is important such issues be considered before finalizing a multi-year contract.”

Dan Samoles, director of operations at the Loyaltree Group, a waste recycling and services provider in Forked River, New Jersey, claims that recycling contamination has been a problem since the programs began decades ago.

“The process is successful when we all work together in educating the public about what they can and cannot recycle,” Samoles said. Vilations are typically identified by what is thrown out. “For example, if there is material that could be recycled found in a customer’s trash, that is a violation,” Samoles said. Depending on the collection system in use, route workers may notice contaminants in the recyclables at the curbside or when the trucks are unloaded at a transfer station or recycling facility. If possible, route workers leave the contaminant at the curbside as an immediate notification to the household. Bixby explained that often someone – whether it’s the route workers or someone following up later – may return to a household to alert them.

Many of the haulers Loyaltree Group uses now have cameras on trucks to capture data on violators. “The cameras allow drivers to see what’s dumped into the trucks,” Samoles said. “If drivers see signs of contamination of trash or recycle bins, a warning can be issued at that time to a violator or later. A warning can even be issued if the contamination is seen at a later time, due to camera recorded evidence. We have personal information for each customer, and we can often even send an email to the address, to let them know of the violation.”

Partners in Progress

Are waste and recycling companies working with municipalities to monitor recycling infractions made by residents and companies? Many municipalities ask haulers and companies like Loyaltree Group to penalize residents and businesses that don’t follow the rules.

Here’s why: contamination can reduce the entire capacity of the MRF. If 25 tons of material is collected but half of it is not recyclables, you’re only handling 12.5 tons. “The sorting technology is not perfect,” Germain said. “It adds cost. The removal of contaminated material has a cost and it can affect the health and safety of the workers. Frontline workers that remove unacceptable materials have, for instance, been stuck by needles. Some materials can also harm process machinery. One plastic bag may be insignificant but hundreds of them can stop machines. Also, workers may need to climb up and cut out plastic bags.

As Samoles explained, many cities are getting more serious in catching violators. For example, various communities in the Chicago and Boston areas promise to ticket residents who continually leave out improper material in their bins. “Philadelphia issues $25 fines through the Streets and Walkways Education and Enforcement Program to residents who mix recyclables with trash,” Samoles said. “In New York City, commercial businesses are threatened with fines if they don’t follow recycling rules and they must also pay if they don’t encourage tenants to do the same.”

Bixby said public education programs play a big role in addressing contamination. Recycling violations often occur because residents don’t understand what they can and can’t recycle. “Some haulers and municipal officials don’t realize the importance of educating their customers,” Bixby said. “Now, haulers, municipalities and participants on a national scale are more actively focused on the need for clear, consistent and recurring education.” As an example, SWANA partnered with EPA, Keep America Beautiful and NWRA to develop a “Top 10 in the Bin” message.

Ross stresses that a crackdown on recycling violations by municipalities and waste companies must be a transparent partnership. “Contamination must be identified at the source, or generator,” Ross said. “By the time materials reach the MRF, materials have been collected and aggregated together, making generator identification difficult. Haulers must assist with the identification process and communicate with municipalities in order to change generator behavior.”

Steps to Take

Another challenge involves the fact that contaminants in recyclables are often difficult or dangerous to remove. Broken glass is an abrasive and it isn’t easily color sorted and recovered. Some materials can clog sorting machines. “We’ve heard maintenance estimates as high as 15 to 20 minutes out of every couple hours,” Bixby said. “That is a significant drain on processing efficiency and costs.” When higher maintenance costs combine with low market prices, recycling companies inevitably begin to reevaluate which materials they will accept. “Acceptable recyclables are local and program specific,” Ross said. For example, although glass or certain plastics may be recyclable in one area, they may not be accepted in other areas or programs. A recycling symbol seen on an item does not insure the material is acceptable in every program. Transient residents may also bring recycling habits with them to new communities where programs may have a different list of acceptable materials. Many states have lists of materials they consider recyclable written into state law. Container glass, which is heavy, is an example of a material that has often been mandated as recyclable, but it may have a low market value.

“Municipalities are supposed to meet waste diversion and recycling goals that have historically been calculated based on the weight of material diverted or recovered,” Bixby said. “If you consider those issues together, you get competing drivers. Do you reflect the current economic concern and stop collecting? Somebody’s waste diversion rate is going to suffer and the public gets confused because something they’ve been told to recycle for years is no longer accepted. Do you accept that the law requires the material be recycled? That may require a focus on adjusting contracts to better cover costs and on long-term education to improve the quality of recyclable glass, in a hope that the value increases again. Or do you start looking at changing the law to measure diversion differently?”

Bixby stresses that the level of concern about contamination in the recycling stream is going to bring all of the participants in recycling back to the table to discuss why we recycle and how materials contribute to that goal. “The answer of why we recycle may be changing. In the future, it may be less about reducing the weight of material in a landfill and more about reducing the generation of greenhouse gas,” Bixby said. “The addition of a national food waste recovery goal definitely supports a greater emphasis on greenhouse gas.” What’s more, education and outreach is essential to communicating program details. Direct feedback to generators is critical to changing bad recycling habits and maximizing the recovery of clean, acceptable recyclables.

Published in the June 2016 Edition of American Recycler News