The Bin Stops Here

MOVING RECYCLING RATES up a notch may soon require policing waste generators, if you look to Los Angeles and Seattle as indicators. Recently, the city of Los Angeles Department of Public Works (LADPW) announced that it will not collect the contents of recycling bins that are contaminated with trash.

“We were receiving reports of high percentages of contamination in some areas from the MRFs (materials recovery facilities),” says Chris Johnson, assistant division managers of the Bureau of Sanitation's South Collection Division. Common contaminants in the city's green and blue recycling containers have included plastic bags, car parts and trash. So now, when Los Angeles haulers spot contamination in a recycling container, they will not collect the materials but instead tag the container, Johnson says.

Each tag will have a notice informing the resident why the contents were not collected. The tag also will ask the offending resident to call the bureau's hotline for information on how to correct the contamination problem.

Johnson admits, however, that the new rule may delay collection times as drivers will need to dismount their vehicles to tag the bins. Also, policing the recycling bins may be challenging because “many residents will hide contamination at the bottom of the container, making it harder to detect. And we lack the adequate personnel to effectively monitor the city's 745,000 residents' containers,” he says.

Nevertheless, the LADPW believes that tagging's benefits outweigh the costs. “Residents [who do] not properly use their green and blue containers are becoming a major problem,” Bureau of Sanitation Assistant Director Enrique Zaldivar says. “Contamination undermines our efforts to recycle and divert refuse from precious landfill space.”

Seattle also believes refusing collection could be the ticket to improving recycling; earlier this year, the city announced a ban on certain recyclables from residential and commercial garbage. Then beginning in 2005, “violators” who put unacceptable amounts of recyclable materials in with their regular trash will have their containers tagged, and informational materials will be given to the generator. The city says it will enforce this policy using warnings and fines for commercial customers, as well as delay collection for offending single-family customers in 2006.

Susan Stoltzfus, spokeswoman for the Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), says the details of the enforcement still are being developed, but “the intent is for solid waste collectors to flag garbage containers that have too many recyclables through visual inspection by an SPU inspector, contractor or transfer station worker,” she says. “Photos will be taken to document the violation.”

Stoltzfus says the ban is part of a comprehensive effort to achieve Seattle's 60 percent recycling goal.

“Failure to guard against contaminants can undermine a successful recycling program,” says Chaz Miller, state programs director the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Industries. “While it takes more collection time to tag, the savings on the processing end are worth the extra effort.”