Among the most pressing priorities in recycling today is the need to reduce the amount of contamination — or the unacceptable items mixed with recyclables — in the stream that we collect for processing at our recycling facilities. Reducing contamination means reducing unacceptable materials in the inbound stream, which directly impacts the quality of what can ultimately be sold and recycled. It’s a difficult challenge, and we all play a significant role when it comes to recycling well — starting with consumers. That’s why we’re so committed to consumer education and awareness in the communities we serve.
Over the years, the changing mix of materials in the waste stream combined with a shift to cart-based, single-stream recycling has contributed to an increase in the average contamination rate for materials Waste Management collects in curbside programs to 25 percent. That means 500 pounds of every 2,000 pounds collected is ultimately discarded as nonrecyclable. This increases the cost of recycling because we must sort more material as well as transport and dispose of more material as trash. The lost value of good recyclables that are ruined due to contamination also must be considered.
Contamination in the recycling stream not only hinders our efforts to recycle well and efficiently for customers, but it also presents safety concerns. In addition to working with heavy machinery, workers in recycling facilities sort through chemical waste, batteries, scrap metal and organic materials. To provide a safer solution, Waste Management introduced one of the industry’s first recycling robots in North America in 2017.
Using sophisticated cameras to identify specific objects such as cans, plastic containers, glass or other recyclable materials within seconds, robots can remove them using suction cups or large tongs. In addition to helping keep human workers out of harm’s way, the robots are highly efficient, with a current performance of 55 picks per minute; slightly more efficient than 1.5 humans on a per minute basis.
Educating Our Communities
Consumers want to recycle. But recycling can be confusing. It’s hard to keep up with what should and should not go in the bin while leading a fast-paced daily life. Plastic bags might seem like obvious items for the curbside collection bin, but they are a huge problem for recycling facilities.
That’s why we continue to invest in public education programs to help consumers better understand smart recycling practices. It’s hard to imagine that one wrong item in a recycling bin can spoil an entire batch of otherwise good materials, but it’s true, which is why we’ve created our Recycle Often. Recycle Right.® (RORR) program.
Waste Management’s dedicated website details myths, resources, and the do’s and don’ts of recycling, as well as providing tools tailored for various entities that might be seeking recycling know-how — including residents, businesses, educators, property managers and government institutions. Our most visited page on the RORR website busts myths and provides accurate information about the most frequently asked recycling questions. For the past three years, we have updated this site with relevant questions on how to recycle the right things correctly.
We’re also putting information where consumers are most likely to find it — 45 percent of individuals look to municipalities for recycling information, and they primarily seek it out on the municipalities’ websites. As part of our RORR program, we developed a widget for municipal customers to put on their websites that provides targeted recycling education. The widget is user-friendly, hosted by the municipality and comes at no cost.
While we do our absolute best to educate consumers through the RORR program, we find that “tagging efforts” is the most effective way to teach customers how to recycle right. Tags placed on bins along our routes that use both positive and negative reinforcement have proven effective because of the immediate feedback to consumers on how to recycle correctly.
Finally, as a last resort, we find that charging for contamination serves as a strong deterrent. Using this “tough love” tactic, we’re taking a two-pronged approach to contract enforcement: we are reviewing contracts and seeking cost recovery or price adjustments as allowed for contamination; and, moving forward, fully enforcing contracts when it comes to charging for contamination.
Waste Management Drivers on the Front Line of Consumer Education
Just as consumer awareness on the dos and don’ts of recycling is critical, so too is ensuring that our drivers are consistently trained across the company to help solve the problem of contamination in the waste stream. Drivers can enhance consumer awareness through Waste Management’s tagging campaigns and help educate consumers on the best ways to decrease contamination.
We’ve found that Driver Recycling Surveys are a useful way to engage our drivers, and administering the survey is vital before kicking off any education or tagging and enforcement campaign. The surveys help us assess the current recycling knowledge of drivers, uncover common contaminants on their routes, identify Waste Management’s tagging practices and help drivers better understand any barriers that prevent tagging. Waste Management also issues a Facilitator Guide with directions for site leaders to administer the survey, with talking points to introduce the contamination issue, and explanation of the driver’s role in prevention. Evaluating results of the driver surveys helps target our campaign materials around a problem contaminant or address barriers that are preventing drivers from identifying and tagging contamination.
For new driver training, and for use when rolling out a tagging and enforcement campaign, training videos available on our company intranet university, “Talent Central,” show drivers how to identify and report contamination through the use of enforcement tags and onboard computing. These videos, in both English and Spanish, are provided to each driver internally or can be found on Waste Management’s YouTube channel.
We also offer a Guide to Contamination & Recycling Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for employees. The Guide to Contamination introduces drivers to the basic RORR rules. The Recycling FAQ is a quick reference guide to help drivers identify problem materials and to help accurately answer any customer questions on their route.
To incentivize drivers to stay engaged and actively serve as RORR ambassadors, we publicly recognize drivers who are most actively involved in tagging and enforcement. We all play a role in helping reduce contamination. And when our drivers are properly informed, their efforts to enforce proper recycling during their routes, as well as educating customers along the way, serve as a dual positive.