Massachusetts has worked for years to clean up its recycling stream, but the effort has been an upward climb as contamination rates have risen. As in other regions, dirty streams are costing the state time and money and presenting safety risks.
Material recovery facilities (MRFs) routinely shut down when hoses, bags and other misplaced materials get caught in machines. And workers get injured when they try to pull them out.
As a result, collectors have to haul contaminated materials twice—once to MRFs and then again to disposal facilities if they can’t be processed. That also means paying tipping fees on unwanted throwaways.
To improve the system, the Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) turned to the Recycling Partnership to help stem the tide of contamination.
“We had been hearing from municipalities that their MRFs were saying there was more contamination,” says Brooke Nash, recycling branch chief for MassDEP. “That residents and municipalities were backsliding on understanding the rules and the public was not being taught.”
Most residents believed they understood the rules, as surveys showed. But when DEP tested that theory it saw a huge gap between people’s perception of the rules and the actual rules.
The state had learned of and liked Recycling Partnership’s model: get on the ground with municipalities, identify unique issues and work to tailor solutions on getting a cleaner recycling stream.
The organization took a lead role in the initiative for nearly a year. Now the national nonprofit is stepping back with a system in place enabling the state to fight contamination on its own.
DEP gave the organization a grant to pilot its concept of intervening at the ground level, providing feedback to residents at the curb and helping change behavior. The pilot was launched at three curbside communities and one drop off community, beginning by identifying the worst contamination problems on routes and in drop off bins.
“We worked with MassDEP to implement a toolkit we built with targeted approaches, based on our findings, such as ‘oops’ tags tied to [residents’] carts that have contaminants,” says Jason Hale, vice president of communications, Recycling Partnership.
Such curbside interventions including “oops” tags that let residents know what does not belong in bins turned out to be integral to the changing behaviors.
“In the four pilot communities we learned that giving feedback [for instance] not to put plastics bags in bins had a huge impact,” Nash says. “But sending flyers out, asking them to recycle and giving rules is not enough. You have to intervene at the curb where they are leaving their stuff. It’s instant feedback where you let them know, we need you to fix this.”
The nonprofit and state developed a recycling tool kit that includes best practices such as how to conduct curbside interventions as well as resources including templates for customizing banners, flyers, ads and other materials. The kit also includes instructions for haulers and communities on working together to cut contamination. And it contains guidance to help municipalities and MRFs establish feedback loops to ensure processes are working.
Most recently, Recycling Partnership has gone back to train DEP employees. These municipal assistance coordinators (MACs) will guide Massachusetts’ municipalities through using the tool kit and improving their recycling programs.
“MACs are playing the role we played last year, helping communities through the process. And we are now there as a coach,” says Hale.
The program now touches 100,000 households. The ultimate plan is to have widespread adoption of the kit across the commonwealth––so they can leverage these resources.
“Now we have communities applying for grants to implement practices in the tool kit … We have seven communities working with us now. Next year we hope to be working with two or three times that number,” says Nash.
In a year, the MACs and municipalities working with them will be experts and share best practices with other communities interested in stepping up and tackling contamination. That’s Massachusetts’s plan.
Recycling Partnership’s plan is to move on and support other states in developing effective programs, and again, to pass the baton once these regions are equipped to tackle their recycling issues on their own.