Recycling Goes Public

INCREASINGLY, SPORTS STADIUMS and concert venues are providing fans with recycling bins for their empty beverage containers. But for pedestrians in most U.S. cities, recycling plastic bottles or aluminum cans means holding onto them until getting home. That dilemma prompted Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley to bring recycling containers to traffic-heavy parts of the city, a solution that slowly is cropping up across the country.

In July, as part of a pilot program, the city teamed up with Kingsport, Tenn.-based Outdoor Partner Media to place 26 bins in and around the downtown area. The company provides Baltimore with the containers for free and sells advertising space on them to generate revenue, which is shared with the city. And for every 25 bins on the streets, the city gets to promote its own campaigns or programs on three of them. In exchange, Baltimore is responsible for collecting and disposing the recyclables, which include plastic, aluminum and paper.

Within one month of beginning the pilot program, the city requested 30 more of the 90-gallon receptacles created by Dunkirk, Md.-based Victor Stanley and placed some of them in outlying areas. While the city has not yet compiled statistics on the amount of recyclables collected, Robert Murrow, spokesperson for Baltimore City Public Works, says that the containers “are really being used by people.”

Baltimore now is working out some of the issues with its program. For instance, while the containers have a clearly labeled slot for trash and holes for plastic and aluminum, some areas have had problems with contamination. “As we put them in outlying areas, contamination has been more of a problem,” says Steve Blake, engineer for Baltimore City Public Works. “We are still experimenting with different situations and locations.” The city also has decided to phase out advertising from alcohol and cigarette companies.

The pilot program will be in place until June, when the city will decide whether to continue it. “So far, everything we've heard, from businesses to residents, has been positive,” Blake says.

With one large city under its belt, Outdoor Partner Media now is working with St. Louis to roll out a program. Until Baltimore, the company focused on smaller cities, working with several of them to resolve problems with the system. “We've deliberately taken a one-step-at-a-time approach,” says President Ari Huber.

Other cities have taken a different approach to recycling by shouldering the costs. Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, has been putting recycling containers in public places for more than three years. While haulers provide the more than 400 metal temporary containers in public parks, the city pays for the permanent ones.

Santa Barbara began the program by putting containers on 10 blocks of State Street, a main tourist spot filled with restaurants. The city now has 670 recycling containers in place and intends to add 100 in the next 18 months. The program keeps approximately 700 to 800 tons of waste per year out of landfills.

Santa Barbara also is experimenting with ways to reduce contamination. “We have put a lot of energy into signage and labeling,” says recycling coordinator Edward France. While this has helped, the city is becoming more aggressive in its efforts. Until recently, separate recycling containers were placed next to trash cans, and two haulers would empty the bins. Santa Barbara now is testing another option by installing containers with an upper section for recyclables and a lower section for trash. The “scavenger” containers are intended to allow people to take the recyclables, which France says should reduce contamination and prevent a hauler from having to pick them up.

While more cities are expressing an interest in public recycling containers, it might be a while before the practice becomes widespread. “Generally, a whole city will not take on public spaces recycling,” France says.

Jennifer Grzeskowiak Managing Editor