Moving on Up

With falling revenues, private haulers need to seek new ways to generate cash. The recession also has affected many apartment complexes that are struggling to keep their units rented.

One solution for both businesses may be right in their own basements: establishing a recycling program for multi-family units.

One community — Onondaga County, N.Y. — that has a decade of experience recycling at apartment complexes boasts a 95 percent success rate at the 540 apartments it monitors. Although its residents are required to recycle, the lessons the county learned can be applied to any voluntary program.

Starting Your Program

As with many volunteer efforts, an apartment recycling program must have a champion — a group of tenants, a tenant association, the apartment manager or, most likely, a hauler, who will lead the charge.

A hauler must first determine the apartment manager's and tenant's level of interest in establishing a program. If the apartment manager initiates the program, this person should contact at least three haulers to determine the costs and which contractor has the best program for their complex. The contract should last for one to three years and should be structured so that each party knows their responsibilities.

Once the complex agrees to participate, it must work closely with their hauler to set up the recycling program. The hauler and apartment manager must inform tenants about the recycling terms, including what can be recycled, where containers are located and how to prepare the materials.

For instance, containers (bottles and cans) must be rinsed. Plastic bottles, gable-top containers and metal food cans should be flattened to decrease the volume. If recyclables are contaminated, the local materials recovery facility (MRF) may reject them, so haulers can refuse to pick up contaminated materials.

Once a program is established, the apartment manager should notify tenants about the results of their recycling efforts. For instance, the hauler can tell the apartment manager how much recyclable material has been collected and communicate the program's progress in an apartment newsletter or on a bulletin board.

Heed the Hauler

In all cases, the hauler will play a crucial role. Representatives from the waste management company can explain why recycling is important to the tenants. For example, Onondaga County publishes information showing its residents how recycling conserves natural resources and saves energy.

Based on the apartment's size, the hauler also can determine how many recycling carts are needed, where containers should be distributed around the complex and how frequently containers should be picked up and emptied.

The hauler also can help educate recyclers. For example, in Onondaga County, the hauler helped to develop labels that clearly define what should be placed in each recycling container. For people new to the recycling program, the label was attached to the top of the cart's lid to illustrate the recyclable commodity with a diagram. The labels also can be placed on the front of the cart so that it's easier for tenants to see and won't be easily blocked by snow.

Choosing Containers

Key to an effective apartment recycling program is selecting the appropriate collection containers. For example, a 90- to 96-gallon wheeled rollout cart would provide adequate volume for recyclables and can be moved easily. Often, an automated recycling truck using a hydraulic arm to lift and empty them collects these types of carts.

But a 30-cubic-yard roll-off partitioned into two or three separate compartments for different materials can be used for recyclables collection, too. Because contamination is possible with this type of collection, maintenance workers need to clean out the container daily, which results in an added cost.

Typically, a set of two carts is needed to collect recyclables in most apartments. One cart holds only fiber material — newspaper, magazines, pizza boxes, office paper, phone books and junk mail. The second cart holds containers — glass bottles, metal food cans, No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles, gable-top milk and juice cartons, aerosol cans, and aluminum foil and foil trays.

Corrugated cardboard can be flattened and placed between any two carts. However, if a large volume of cardboard is being recycled, 4-cubic-yard to 6-cubic-yard containers dedicated just for this material should be provided and located around the complex.

To prevent contamination, carts should be clearly labeled. The common labels are “paper” for the fiber cart and “commingled” for the glass and plastic bottles and metal can containers. Often a “no trash” label also is added to the recycling carts.

Selecting a Site

Recycling containers typically are placed next to where trash is collected. This eliminates the need for tenants to make a separate trip to dispose of recyclables. The site also should be easily accessible by a hauling truck.

If the site is in the parking lot, it should be well-lit to provide security and to discourage illegal dumping, which can add an additional barrier to apartment recycling, especially in metropolitan areas. If illegal dumping is serious, apartments should consider collecting recyclables inside a building, along with the trash.

The recyclables and trash then can be taken out for pickup either by maintenance personnel or by the hauler on collection day. Also ask a maintenance worker to keep an eye on the site.

In colder climates, the collection area must be protected from winter winds and snow. Oftentimes, recycling carts are placed on the leeward side of the trash container to protect against strong winds. An enclosure also can be built for both the recycling carts and the trash container.

Program Costs

Who pays the program's cost varies from complex to complex and for different reasons. For instance, most apartments in Onondaga County include the cost in the apartment rental fee. However, some apartment owners absorbed this small cost to keep their rental fees competitive in a tight rental market. In addition to paying for the program, communities also should consider who will pay for the equipment.

Carts either can be leased or purchased. Used 96-gallon carts cost as little as $35, as opposed to new units that generally cost between $70 to $90.

Often, haulers prefer to supply free carts to the apartments because they know the units will be compatible with their truck's lifting system. This also works to the apartment's benefit because if a cart becomes damaged, haulers can replace it.

Onondaga County has tracked its apartment recycling costs [see “Variables Significantly Affect Recycling Cost,” on page 72]. These examples show that the recycling cost can be a small fraction of the cost to rent the apartment.

The recycling costs shown in the examples were between 0.10 percent to 0.24 percent of the monthly rental cost. Reflected in these costs were lower apartment trash bills, due to the lower volume of waste generated.

In fact, apartment recycling lowered trash volume by an average of 15 percent, according to a study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Washington, D.C.

There are ways to lower apartment recycling costs. For example, recycling carts can be emptied less frequently, as long as the carts don't overflow. And, the hauler can create fewer sites for the carts, with more carts per site.

Density of pickups in the area also affects costs. The more pickups near the complex, the lower the overall cost.

Haulers also can absorb the costs. For instance, a private contractor that serves more than 200 apartment complexes in Charlotte, N.C., absorbed the costs because it helped to secure those customers' trash business. The hauler then reduced its costs by placing all the recycling carts and the trash compactor in one spot in a large complex. The driver only had to leave the vehicle once to attach the carts to the hydraulic arm. And it was compensated, in part, by selling the recyclables at the MRF.

Apartment recycling, even a voluntary program, can be beneficial to both the hauler and the complex. Apartment managers will find that a good recycling program can help attract more tenants, and haulers can increase their trash business.

And, of course, society benefits by the conservation of resources and energy.

Knowlton Foote retired recently as a recycling specialist for the Onondaga County Recovery Agency, North Syracuse, N.Y. Scott Foster is a sales representative with Waste Management Inc., Liverpool, N.Y.


Although the cost per unit to recycle is cheap, the following different apartment complexes show that different circumstances create different costs.

  • An apartment complex of 40 units in five three-floor buildings had one 6-cubic-yard container for trash, which was emptied twice a week. Recyclables were deposited by tenants into four 96-gallon recycling carts (two for fiber, two for containers) set next to the trash container and emptied once a week. The cost to the complex for trash was $3,396 per year or $84.90 per rental unit per year. The recycling cost was $480 per year or $12 per rental unit per year.

  • A much larger complex had 380 rental units in 13 three-floor buildings. Its trash was deposited into 13 8-cubic-yard containers distributed throughout the site and emptied once a week. It also had a 20-cubic-yard roll-off for large items or construction and demolition debris.

    Recyclables were collected in 30 96-gallon recycling carts in sets of three — one for fiber, two for containers. These carts were distributed throughout the complex and were emptied weekly. This complex also had four 6-cubic-yard containers for corrugated cardboard, which were emptied once a week.

    The yearly trash bill was $24,913 or $65.56 per rental unit per year. The recycling bill reached $2,748 or $7.23 per rental unit per year.

  • A third example is a complex with 34 two-story buildings housing 342 units. The trash was collected in a 35-cubic-yard compactor. Tenants placed recyclables into a single 30-cubic-yard roll-off next to it on a concrete pad.

A maintenance worker checks the trash area daily, spending five to 10 minutes cleaning out contaminants from the roll-off. The compactor and roll-off were emptied once per week.

The total yearly trash cost, including the compactor rental fee was $27,052 or $79.10 per year per unit. The recycling fee for the year was $6,120 or $17.89 per year per unit.
Knowlton Foote and Scott Foster