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Tips for Tackling Contamination in Recycling Streams

Tips for Tackling Contamination in Recycling Streams

Plastic bags. Pizza boxes. Clothes. Containers full of food.

These are all examples of items that get tossed into recycling streams that are the bane of solid waste authorities across the country.

Contamination is a problem in that it clogs recycling systems or ruins what were otherwise salvageable materials. That cuts into the commodity stream at the back end of recycling systems, which ultimately impacts revenues and profitability.

Curbing wishful, careless or uninformed tosses into the residential recycling bin is at the heart of the Waste360 Recycling Summit’s Managing Contamination session.

The session will showcase the following experts in the field and how they are fighting back against this pervasive problem at the curbside: Karen Bandhauer, project director at The Recycling Partnership; Julie Colehour, principal and social marketing connoisseur at C+C Public Relations & Social Marketing; and Greg Superneau, education and outreach coordinator for the city of Springfield, Mass.

We caught up with Superneau to get the 411 on the key points he plans to highlight during the session, which is scheduled from 9:20-10:30 a.m. on Thurs., Sept. 10.

Waste360: Can you give us a teaser about what you’re going to talk about?

Greg Superneau: Sure. My presentation is called “Cleaning Up Your Single Stream” and I’m going to be talking about how to effectively address contamination issues when they do arise.

In Springfield, we have 150,000 residents and we’re the third largest city in Massachusetts. We’re an urban, economically challenged city and we face a lot of language barriers with our residents.

When we rolled out our single-stream recycling program in 2008-2009, we had huge success. We increased our diversion and more than doubled our recycling rate. We went from 4,000 tons to 8,000 tons in a year.

We eventually developed a contamination problem. There is some question to how much contamination since the metrics for measuring contamination are subjective, but it was to the point where we were being told by the processor that they weren’t comfortable with the amount of contamination we were giving them.

So in May, we launched a program and I’m going to focus on the steps we took to address our contamination problem.

Waste360: Wow, May 2015?

Greg Superneau: Yes, it’s hot off the presses. I just had a meeting with some officials from DEP and Waste Management today and they haven’t seen any contamination issues in the last six to eight weeks; like zero.

We went from nine trucks in a few weeks being flagged for contamination to no trucks. Now that I’ve said that we’ll have a truck.

It’s a marked measurable decrease in the amount of contamination. They are actually looking and saying, “Wow guys, how did you get it down so quickly?”

Waste360: How did you make such an impact so fast?

Greg Superneau: We left the barrels behind. That’s it.

We wanted to take proactive steps to make sure that we were not one of the communities that were bringing contaminated recycling to the MRF. The markets have sort of stagnated because of the drop in oil prices, having less paper, the Chinese green fence – all those factors have contributed to the drop in revenue which makes the processors more carefully scrutinize loads.

We run a cart system. Obviously the mechanism of the truck tips the cart but that doesn’t mean that the driver can’t flip the lid and look inside the barrel. Now we don’t want our drivers digging through it but they were checking every barrel.

It sounds like it would take a lot of time but it was necessary in order to measure the problem. We did devote a lot of resources to bring the contamination rate down and measuring it.

We’ve been tagging and leaving barrels since the beginning of May. We started seeing some good results after a few weeks of that being put into action.

Waste360: So you tag the bags and let residents know why their recyclables were not accepted?

Greg Superneau: Exactly. Education and effectively communication with residents are critical components of managing contamination.

Leaving the barrels behind is key but when you leave a barrel behind you have to leave a tag on the barrel that’s explains why you are not picking it up.

We’ve put out thousands of flyers to neighborhood groups and senior centers. You really have to reach out to the residents, and educate them but you can’t overcomplicate it. Keep it simple with lots of pictures, especially if you have a lot of people who speak English as a second language.

If you engage them in a respectful way by saying you appreciate all the work that they are doing to recycle, they are generally receptive to the information. We tell our residents that when they come across an item that they’re not sure about, it’s almost better to throw it out because you don’t want to contaminate a whole barrel with an item that isn’t recyclable.

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