recycling issues

July 6, 2016

Contamination causes major problems for recycling programs. Improving communication plays a pivotal role in solving the issue.


Tracie Onstad Bills, Northern California Director, Sustainable Materials Management at SCS Engineers

Thank you for the responses and questions about my blog Minimizing Contamination in Recycling. It seems appropriate to provide answers to the most frequently asked questions and send more advice. Any program should be tailored to your current collection system; what works and what doesn’t work for your locality; the demographics of your community; and how your community views recycling.

In light of those considerations, here are some recommendations for ways to minimize contamination in recyclables:

  • Mail outreach materials to business and residents on a regular basis. When your community is adding recycling or switching to a new recycling program, mail outreach starting 6 months before the new services begin to inform and prepare the community for the change. Then every other month send new information about the program so people get used to hearing about the upcoming program, what is expected of them, and the positive difference they are making in their community.
  • Use social media to get your message out, Including NextDoor, Facebook, Twitter, the local government/community website, newspapers, community TV stations, and radio. One of the people who responded to my previous blog, Cyril May, even uses magic as a part of his environmental outreach. He is the recycling coordinator for the City of Waterbury, CT, and uses magic to demonstrate the power of recycling when he goes door-to-door or speaks at schools. “Turning a ripped up newspaper into a new newspaper shows the magic of recycling that everyone has,” he says. “Causing dollar bills to vanish in smoke and flame showcases the taxpayer dollars lost when we send valuable recyclables to incinerators.”
  • After the service starts, follow up with additional outreach. Highlight what people should do as well as what they should not do. Yes – I am a firm believer in excellent outreach, education, and communication!
  • Some studies have suggested providing trash cans that are the same size as the recycling can, because when the recycling is free, people often will throw their trash into the recycling containers in order to keep a small trash container for a cheaper cost. I am not an advocate of this method, however, I am a realist and know that this is one cause of contamination, so keep an eye on it!
  • Make sure your hauler keeps track of any contamination issues and the causes. Knowing what the contamination is and why it is caused, will help you determine the next steps on how to address it. For example, if you have slight contamination because residents and businesses are throwing in items that they think are recyclable, you can continue to educate them about what can and cannot be recycled. However, if they are putting trash in the recycling containers in order to save costs, that is another matter that needs to be addressed appropriately, and may include citations or fines.
  • Many people throw more than they should into their recycling containers because they think “the hauler will sort it at the facility,” and so they don’t feel the need to be extra cautious about how they sort. As part of your outreach, I would recommend letting the community know that the cleaner the materials, the better the market and the more economical the service. They need to understand that there are consequences when they are not careful about how they recycle.
  • Make sure that the materials you accept in your recycling program can, in fact, be recycled. Cities often accept items in recycling containers because they can be recycled in theory (for example, milk cartons and polystyrene), when, in fact, they may not be. Depending on the local dynamics, recycling markets, recoverability at the recycling facility, or other barriers, certain materials may or may not be recycled. Be consistent with the materials you accept and don’t take items that may cause confusion.
  • In California, we have very diverse demographics and multiple languages. Providing outreach in those different languages, and even better, with pictures, will help your community fully understand the recycling program.
  • Go into the schools to get the kids engaged and excited about recycling. If you are starting a new recycling program, facilitate an assembly right before and/or after the service starts. Kids often influence their family’s behavior in such matters.
  • Multi-family dwellings should be treated differently than single-family residences. Because residents of multi-family dwellings do not typically pay for the service directly, their containers will almost always be contaminated because there is no ownership of the responsibility. There are other barriers as well, such as illegal dumping, fluctuation of tenants, move-in or move-out purging of material, etc. I have a different set of recommendations for multi-family dwellings which I consider one of the toughest nuts to crack.
  • Make sure the recycling haulers place non-collection tags on containers that are contaminated. After a few violation notices and the threat to suspend service, residents and businesses usually improve, especially when they realize that someone is watching them.
  • Be diligent when transitioning to your new recycling program and closely monitor how your residents and businesses are doing. I would recommend having a few interns go out for the first month or two and conduct random lid flips. Leave notes that say “good job – you’re an excellent recycler” to reinforce the good behavior. This will also provide a pulse on how the program is doing, where the problems are, and if there are certain districts of the city that are more contaminated than others. By isolating the areas that have high contamination, you can focus your outreach and education to the regions that need message reinforcement.
  • Be flexible. Remember that your program will be evolving, so go with the flow, and be sure to celebrate your successes!

Learn more about recycling programs by reading Success In Selective Routing – Resource Recycling or the SCS project and case studies below:


As always, feel free to send me your questions and comments. Contact Tracie here.



Posted by Diane Samuels at 6:00 am