Struggling to meet enhanced quality standards and wanting to make money rather than lose money on recycling, more municipalities are asking haulers to help penalize residents and businesses that don’t follow the rules.
Ann Germain, a director at the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA), says while contamination with recycling has been a problem since the programs began decades ago, the situation has become untenable because of the significant drop in value for some recycled materials. People have always struggled to recycle correctly, she says, but the contamination that clogs up material recovery facilities (MRFs) or results in end product material that isn’t up to snuff didn’t matter when there were still profits made from the sales.
“However, a lot of the MRFs have basically come back and said they can’t pay profits back to the municipalities, which was one of the reasons to start recycling in the first place,” she says. “Some MRFs have said they might have to start charging to accept the waste.”
Traditionally, just leaving a notice at the curb or with a business was the easiest way for a waste hauler to explain a violation. The tag explained what couldn’t be recycled, and why, with hopes that the offender would adjust going forward. However, recyclers are now losing money on shipments that are too dirty, which is requiring the recycling streams to get cleaner, faster. This has sparked new ways of tracking bad recyclers, ranging from using truck cameras to record problem participants to paying individuals to go through trash and identify violators.
Susan Robinson, a public affairs director at Waste Management, says her firm has been asked to implement a number of contractual terms, conditions and strategies to pursue violators. These efforts include tagging campaigns, contamination fees, rate hikes, code enforcement penalties and potential removal of recycling containers after residents have received multiple instruction visits.
“Our first goal is to educate and reduce confusion, and a key effort is to identify habitual offenders,” she says. “Trends indicate 90 percent of contamination comes from 10 percent of customers.”
Automation has made it more difficult to personally intervene when people leave out improper material. Robinson says her firm has started a pilot program that uses cameras on trucks to capture data on violators. The cameras film what’s dumped into the trucks. If the drivers are watching they can leave a warning tag, or later workers can watch the recorded videos and then contact the violators. “We already have their personal information, so in today’s technological age, we can even send an email to the address to let them know of the violation,” she says.
Many cities are getting more serious in catching violators. Various cities in the Chicago and Boston areas promise to ticket residents who continually leave out improper material in their bins. Philadelphia promises $25 fines through the Streets and Walkways Education and Enforcement Program for residents who put recyclables in with regular trash. In New York City, all commercial businesses are not only threated with fines if they don’t follow complicated recycling rules, they also must pay if they don’t encourage tenants to do the same.
Sara Bixby, deputy executive director at the Solid Waste Association of North America, says it’s a national problem to educate people to understand recycling rules, because they vary so much from community to community. There’s no cohesive U.S. standard that can be easily explained—one state might take a bottle deposit while neighboring states don’t. One community might take newspapers while another doesn’t, for example. Plus, not only are the markets constantly changing, the manufacturers are putting out different products and packaging, and the industry is usually stuck playing catch-up.
“I think the average resident really struggles with what you can and can’t recycle,” Bixby says. “Say, a milk jug, that might be easy, but you’ve got some plastic containers with symbols on it, and strange codes, it’s just not easy.”
Punishment is not likely to work, Germain says, because it’s an added cost. She believes the best efforts should be spent on education, especially for those people who are not understanding the process. Identifying the violators will help to find the people who need the extra education, and while tagging and not picking up might get their attention, Germain says the next step should be personalized recycle training.
“I don’t believe it should be an alienating experience, but at the same time, you’ve got sanitation workers out there who are subjected to pulling out all sorts of nonsense from the recycling systems, like food or even diapers,” she says. “It’s an honest mistake sometimes—the boxes diapers come in, they have a recycle symbol on them—people might think the diapers themselves are recyclable and not just the box. Enforcing penalties, that’s just throwing money at the problem, I’m not sure it’s best to spend money to be a police state when most times it’s just a misunderstanding that can be addressed.”